Back in October I wrote about how an Alabama court had issued a preliminary injunction against "Legal Schnauzer" blogger Roger Shuler prohibiting him from blogging about certain claims and requiring him to take blog posts down. I also explained why that preliminary injunction was likely unconstitutional prior restraint — an order that prohibited speech before it happened rather than punishing defamatory speech after it happened, without any extraordinary circumstances that might support it. Last week I talked about how the ACLU had filed an amicus brief on Shuler's behalf, but bemoaned that Shuler was refusing legal counsel in a case arising out of his arrest for defying the preliminary injunction.
There are updates. They aren't good.
Though Roger Shuler may have enemies amongst Alabama politicians, and perhaps even amongst Alabama judges, he remains his own worst enemy.
The Alabama Court Has Issued A Permanent Injunction
This week a local news station reported that on November 14, 2013 the Alabama court held a hearing and indicated that it would issue a permanent injunction finding Shuler's posts about Robert J. Riley, Jr. to be false and ordering him to take them down.
The local station quoted Riley's law partner and attorney James Murrill as dismissing the prior restraint and First Amendment concerns:
There's been speculation that the Court's previous orders have infringed on Mr. Shuler's constitutional rights. Actually, libelous speech is not protected by the First Amendment. As the United States Supreme Court ruled in Linn v. United Plant Guard Workers of America, "it must be emphasized that malicious libel enjoys no constitutional protection in any context." Also, the concept of "prior restraint" applies to an action to enjoin speech before it occurs. This lawsuit dealt with speech that had already occurred, and the law allows a plaintiff to seek civil remedies for defamatory speech that has already occurred. All of this is clear if you look at the Court's records, which the Court has now agreed to unseal."
That press statement is either one of the most blindingly ignorant or cynically dishonest I have ever read from an attorney about a case. Riley may be suing Shuler based on past speech. But Riley — though Murrill — sought an injunction that prohibits future speech. That's classic prior restraint. Murrill is simply lying when he suggests that Riley has not litigated to silence Shuler's ongoing and future speech.
Some may suggest that because a court held a hearing and issued a permanent injunction rather than a preliminary injunction, this is no longer an issue of unconstitutional prior restraint. I disagree. The authorities permitting prior restraint of statements found by the trier of fact to be defamatory — whether by forbidding their utterance, or requiring them to be removed — only support such an order after a trial, not after a pre-trial hearing. Here Shuler has not had an opportunity to conduct discovery and the judge, rather than a jury, acted as the finder of fact. The vast weight of authority seems to be against prior restraint until after trial except in extraordinary cases — and nothing about Shuler's case is extraordinary, except perhaps the political connections of his targets.
In 2007 the California Supreme Court upheld a post-trial order enjoining specified defamatory statements; that opinion has a good survey of prior restraint cases across the state and federal courts. Those authorities strongly supports the notion that the First Amendment requires a full trial, not a mere pretrial hearing, before prior restraint is permissible. See, e.g., Pittsburgh Press Co. v. Pittsburgh Comm'n on Human Relations (1973) 413 U.S. 376, 390 [“prior restraint is… communication…before an adequate determination that it is unprotected by the First Amendment”); Kramer v. Thompson (3d Cir.1991) 947 F.2d 666, 675 [“The United States Supreme Court has held repeatedly that an injunction against speech generally will not be considered an unconstitutional prior restraint if it is issued after a jury has determined that the speech is not constitutionally protected.”]; see DVD Copy Control Assn., Inc. v. Bunner (2003) 31 Cal.4th 864, 891–892, 4 Cal.Rptr.3d 69, 75 P.3d 1 (conc. opn. of Moreno, J.) [“a preliminary injunction poses a danger that permanent injunctive relief does not; that potentially protected speech will be enjoined prior to an adjudication on the merits of the speaker's or publisher's First Amendment claims”].
Moreover, until we see the written permanent injunction, we won't know if it suffers from the other flaw of the preliminary injunction: vagueness. The preliminary injunction didn't just require Shuler to take certain posts down and forbid him from saying specific things about Riley; it also vaguely forbade him to publish "any defamatory statement" about Riley "including but not limited to" the defamatory ones. That leaves Shuler (or anyone advising him) to guess at what he may or may not publish. It's exactly the sort of vague and indefinite prior restraint repeatedly struck down by courts. If it appears in the permanent injunction, it's an additional ground for constitutional challenge.
Roger Shuler is Still Roger Shuler
Riley's lawyer James Murrill — whose version of events admittedly should be taken with a pillar of salt — describes Shuler's conduct at this week's hearing as follows:
A hearing was held today on a permanent injunction. Mr. Shuler attended and presented no evidence in support of his false allegations, but instead called the Court a joke and said that he would not follow the Court's order. He also told the Court that it had no jurisdiction over him.
Well, that's just disastrous for Shuler and for the First Amendment. It's exactly the sort of behavior that concerned me when Shuler refused a court-appointed lawyer.
Shuler may believe that the fix is in; he may believe that this Alabama court is biased for powerful and connected local politicos like Riley and against critics of powerful politicos like Shuler. That doesn't make refusing to participate, calling the court a joke, and denying the court's jurisdiction a sensible strategy. It's a wholly deranged strategy. Shuler increasingly reminds me of some of the defendants I saw as a federal prosecutor in the 1990s — tax protestors who claimed that the United States District Court was an admiralty court with no jurisdiction over them because it flew a flag with a gold fringe, Feemen who said that the defendant named in the indictment was not the same person as them because the name was capitalized in the caption and their name is not capitalized, and so forth. Shuler's "I successfully evaded service and therefore this court has no jurisdiction over me" is a madman's gambit. Jurisdiction isn't a game, and even if it were a game, Shuler lost it. Shuler's litigation behavior — which is merely an extension of his history of vexatious pro se behavior — is robbing him of any chance of vindication of his rights.
Perhaps this court is biased against Shuler and for Riley. Riley is from a powerful family and has powerful friends; Shuler is — in a way that appears to me to be haphazard and crazed – a critic of powerful politicians. The court has issued a preliminary injunction that strikes me as frankly lawless. But ultimately you can't vindicate your rights by refusing to acknowledge the court, like some fallen dictator before a revolutionary tribunal. You have to fight for your rights. You have to articulate how you believe your rights are being violated. You have to seek to call witnesses, to present evidence, and to cross-examine the other side's witnesses. If, like Shuler, your circumstances make those things nearly impossible, you need to articulate your need for more time or resources and explain what you would do if you had them. If you don't do those things, you not only lose in the court you think is biased, you very likely lose on appeal or on any collateral attack in another court — because you haven't acted to preserve your arguments.
Shuler was in a very bad place this week, but he could have acted to protect himself. He could have asked for time to secure an attorney. There are pro bono attorneys willing to help him. He could have asked for time to conduct discovery to support his assertions. Even if he couldn't refute Riley's assertion that his blog posts were false, he could have tried to show that he had some sources and evidence supporting them. That might have demonstrated that his posts weren't defamatory because he didn't write with with actual malice, the standard applicable to statements about a public figure. But if Murrill's account is accurate, and he simply refused to participate, he may have lost not only this motion, but his ability to challenge it on appeal or in any other court. Any reviewing court may conclude that Shuler waived the arguments he declined to make.
It's not clear why Shuler is acting that way. Is his story a lie, and he knows he can't support it? Is he swollen with hubris? Is he crazy? Whatever the answer, legally speaking he's cut his own throat. Worse, he's helped set a precedent that will embolden future plaintiffs seeking to silence defendants through unconstitutional prior restraint.
I would have no problem if Riley sued Shuler, took him to trial, convinced a jury that his posts were false and malicious, secured a judgment against him, and enforced it against him. Shuler's conduct and history, and the shady nature of his claims, makes me extremely skeptical of his story. But this is a very bad result any way you look at it.