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Cantankerous journalist’s tribulation questions limits of online free speech

From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9.

From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9.

By Christine Lagorio

Indisputably eccentric, 69-year-old Paul Trummel has been called many things. His own attorney referred to him as “cantankerous;” critics call him belligerent and delusional. But it is the validity of his self-definition as a journalist that is drawing attention to this case of censorship and prior restraint.

Jailed for 110 days for harassment of his landlords and neighbors, Trummel claims he was probing corruption and discrimination at his 163-unit Seattle elderly housing complex as an investigative journalist. He published his findings in a newsletter and a Web site, both of which Seattle Superior Court Judge James Doerty ruled were “inflammatory” and amounted to harassment.

Trummel ceased publication and distribution of his newsletter more than a year ago but maintained online content detailing what he calls the landlord’s “supremacist tactics,” calling the resident council “pandering pygmies” and outlining his conspiracy theory that neighbors were trying to keep him awake at night. But in October 2001, Doerty said selective online content from his Web site, www.contracabal.net, must be removed.

That is when free-speech advocates latched onto the case. Trummel’s criminal harassment charge had been extended to include content he had published while doing what he called “solid reporting.” Trummel argued that Doerty had censored and issued a prior restraint against him — both rare and usually unconstitutional orders.

“He is acting as my editor,” Trummel said.

The court ordered Trummel to remove the phone numbers, addresses and Social Security numbers (which Trummel says were never posted) of officials — most of whom were Council House administrators. The punishment for violating the restraint on publishing was imprisonment, not just fines or jury awards as with most libel and privacy suits.

“It is a frightening prospect that this sanction was imposed at all for something that may not have been criminally actionable,” said Robert O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Freedom of Expression, who is planning on using Trummel’s case in his University of Virginia Law School class in the fall.

The restraining order and contempt filing came after Trummel, who moved to the United States from England in 1985, tried to evade the Seattle court’s jurisdiction by launching an uncensored version of his original site from a server in the Netherlands. Doerty did not buy the argument, and ruled that Trummel had to remove all personal information about his landlords from the new site — this one with a .org suffix — as well.

Trummel refused and landed in jail on contempt charges.

Three and a half months and a stint in solitary confinement later, a few short stories in the Seattle Weekly about Trummel’s standoff with Doerty snowballed into a global call for Trummel’s release. Groups like Reporters Without Borders, the National Writers Union and the International Federation of Journalists say Doerty’s contempt finding was wrong.

In the standoff between judge and “journalist,” it was Trummel who eventually backed down. Saying he could not stand the cold floors and harsh living conditions in solitary confinement, Trummel replaced his site’s old content on June 19 with an “apologia” proclaiming his allegiance to publishing truths and his desire to remain vigilant about First Amendment rights.

When Doerty released Trummel on June 17, he called him a “mean old man who becomes angry and vicious when he doesn’t get his own way.”

A number of Council House residents would agree with that assessment. Several have filed claims against Trummel for barraging them with phone calls and middle-of-the-night visits.

“It’s been horribly scary,” said Nathaniel Stahl, 59. “He’s spent all these years trying to really hurt people here.”

Trummel, upon seeing what he called “abuses” by the building’s management, launched “Disconnections,” a parody of the Council House publication, “Connections,” three years ago. Most of its content also appeared online.

Trummel took Council House to court for these abuses, although the federally subsidized housing complex had been repeatedly inspected by the state. A spokesman for the state Department of Housing and Urban Development said Trummel’s claims are baseless.

But when Trummel first appeared before Doerty, the judge urged administrator Steven Mitchell to file a counterclaim of harassment against Trummel, said Trummel attorney Robert Siegel. This harassment cross-petition has been the basis for the rulings by Doerty.

Trummel was effectively evicted from the complex in April 2001 after Doerty issued a restraining order to keep the man away from residents. Trummel’s most recent court appearance, on June 21, 2002, resulted in an extended restraint, keeping him outside of a several-block radius of Council House. This order, Doerty said, was made to protect residents and administrators from further harassment.

Trummel, though disgruntled after three-and-a-half months of jail time and the two-year battle with “a judge trying to control” him, said he is proud to be fighting for publishing rights on the largely unregulated Internet.

“Every time a new medium comes along, someone tries to restrict the First Amendment rights of that medium until someone takes a stance,” Trummel said from his room in a Seattle Motel 6, where he has lived since he left jail. “I just may be a bit ahead of my time with this Internet-publishing issue, but I feel I have to stand my ground against this legal system that does not understand the importance of implications of restricting speech on this new medium.”

Early in the case, Doerty said Trummel is not a journalist and thus had no right to post some of his site’s content. This claim got the judge much flak and rekindled discussion on that definition — and its lack of validity in this case.

Trummel and his supporters have used their claims to his academic and journalistic background to support his publishing actions and make the case that Doerty was issuing a prior restraint to a journalist, not just a harassment charge to a citizen. Trummel holds what he calls an international press card from when he was doing freelance work in Brussels and London and refers to himself as a professor. But an Associated Press article said he has never been employed as a professional journalist and Trummel himself admits that most of his resume is disputed.

Being defined as a journalist or a professor does not entitle one to special publishing rights greater than the general public, and drawing a line to distinguish between journalists and non-journalists is almost impossible because Internet posting essentially has the power to make any layman a publisher, said Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“The First Amendment has never recognized any special categories for publishers,” Cohn said. “There is not a class of journalists that gets any privileges above the rest of us.”

In Trummel’s June 17 court appearance, Doerty reversed his past sentiment by agreeing. He said a man’s claim to be a journalist gives him no extra rights.

“Even if Mr. Trummel was a salaried employee of a world-class newspaper and the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, he would not be able to behave the way he behaved at Council House,” he said.

David Greene, executive director of the First Amendment Project in Oakland, Calif., said it is well established that “the right to inform the public is the right that is protected,” under the precedent of a 1938 U.S. Supreme Court case, Lovell v. Griffin. He said the case ensured the rights of U.S. citizens to distribute information regardless of medium.

“Liberty of circulating is as essential to that freedom as liberty of publishing; indeed, without the circulation, the publication would be of little value,” the Supreme Court decision reads.

Whether Paul Trummel is a free-speech crusader or a cantankerous old man, his supporters say it does not matter who he is or where he has been. They believe the issue should be Trummel’s freedom to speak his mind and inform the public using the World Wide Web.

“I have no idea if what he’s saying is true,” said Joe Harkins, an official with the National Writers Union in an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “That’s irrelevant to me.”

Legislation to regulate and define Internet publication continues, which is why Trummel said he has only solidified his position on First Amendment rights to publish and will continue to investigate housing abuses by any means he can.

“This tendency to close public records and censor journalists and throw journalists like Vanessa [Leggett] in jail seems to be only growing,” Trummel said, referring to the Houston author who spent 168 days in federal jail for refusing to testify before a grand jury. “I mean, we can all say that has to do with September 11, but this issue of Internet publication goes beyond that.” (Trummel v. Mitchell) u