The Jailbird Journalist

Pesky Web publisher Paul Trummel, with help from friends in the media, appeals Superior Court Judge James Doerty's gag on his opinions.

If Paul Trummel were to write the story of his court hearing, how would it go? Like this, maybe? "Supporters of the appellant created a standing-room-only situation at the Court of Appeals, Seattle, Washington (14 Nov 03). Several more people queued outside the courtroom but did not gain entry. An unnamed attorney reportedly said that he had never seen such a turnout for an appellate hearing. . . . [The court] questioned attorneys for both sides about the draconian and biased trial-court decisions that caused a reporter to go to jail for an indeterminate period. The case attracted worldwide interest among journalists when they learned that a Seattle judge had jailed journalist Paul Trummel. He served 111 days (25 days in solitary confinement in the same section as Gary Ridgway, the Green River serial killer) for publishing constitutionally protected information."

If you know of Trummel, then you might know that's exactly how he'd write it, and did, e-mailing his fair and impartial report around the world last week. If anything, those 111 days in stir only made him crankier. But the gangly, gray-haired British expatriate, pushing 70, isn't looking for love. He's satisfied with contempt, as long as it's not from a court. However, King County Superior Court Judge James Doerty's order to that effect and Trummel's restless tabloid tongue turned the writer into an elderly inmate and cause c鬨bre last year.

TRUMMEL WAS EVICTED in 2001 from Council House, a residence for seniors on Capitol Hill, and took the issue to court. He'd been accused of harassing management and residents through a newsletter, and later through his Web site, He claimed that management abused residents and misappropriated funds, which management denied. His newsletters depicted the house manager as a turbaned terrorist who also used supremacist tactics. Trummel described some residents as "pandering pygmies" and called one an "in-house Marquis de Sade." He lost his challenge in court and in turn was socked with an anti-harassment order. When he continued attacking from the Web, Doerty ordered the site sanitized of disputed remarks. Trummel complied, then created a shadow "international" Web site with similar content. In February 2002, an irate Doerty, ruling free speech was not at stake because he didn't recognize Trummel as a true journalist, sent him to jail until he or someone else edited the site. Seattle Weekly chronicled the story, and journalists and others around the world flooded Doerty with angry e-mails. He was unmoved. After three and a half months, Trummel, tired of doing time with mass murderers, caved.

Now Trummel is appealing Doerty's contempt ruling and declaration that he's not a bona fide reporter (he cites a background as a London journalist and, in the U.S., as a newsletter editor and investigative writer, to which Doerty once countered that "apparently anybody can get a press card; whoever gave Mr. Trummel his should be consulting their lawyers and their insurance carriers"). It's debatable, but Trummel is pretty sure the First Amendment protects him whether he's a member of the media or just an old fart playing house detective.

His attorneys, Elena Luisa Garella and William Crittenden, made those and other points before the state Court of Appeals two weeks ago in Seattle. Trummel was supported by briefs filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, American Society of Journalists and Authors, International Federation of Journalists, National Union of Journalists, and Seattle Weekly.

TRUMMEL AND COUNCIL HOUSE attorneys are arguing in part over issues prior to Doerty's censorship ruling, while supporters are focused on implications of the ruling itself. In their friend-of-the-court brief, Michele L. Earl Hubbard and Todd Wyatt of Davis Wright Tremaine, representing Seattle Weekly, noted: "The judge labeled [Trummel] a 'mean old man' whose speech constituted a collection of 'anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynist lies.' Trummel's speech was offensive to and unpopular with many of his neighbors and the judge. Trummel was working on his own, independently, and not under the umbrella of a major news organization. But these are all reasons why it is imperative that Trummel's right to speak be protected. The offensiveness of his speech and his deemed lack of qualifications and worth as a speaker are irrelevant. All speakers have a constitutional right to speech."

In their 60-page brief, Council House attorneys Richard Du Bey and Thane Somerville say that, throughout his tenancy, "Trummel violated the peace and security of Council House residents and staff through verbal confrontation, unsolicited inflammatory writings, and express and implied threats." Some frail, elderly residents feared and were threatened by Trummel, directly and by his writings, the attorneys say. "This [appeals] court has found in previous cases that harassing behavior is not protected speech. . . . Harassment, even that which involves speech, is more appropriately described as conduct which can be regulated in a manner consistent with First Amendment principles."

Trummel's attorneys say, "This court has squarely held that the anti-harassment statute is content-neutral and that protected speech cannot be the basis for an anti-harassment order." Council House's "arguments are entirely based on the assumption that Trummel's publications were not protected by the First Amendment when distributed inside Council House. Even if this theory had merit, it has no application whatsoever to pure speech in a public forum outside Council House, such as the Internet" where, a number of courts have ruled, speech is protected.

IN HIS PRESS RELEASE, Trummel, whose aim is to overturn the ruling and recoup his legal costs, says a decision by the appeals court is expected within six weeks to six months. The release is signed "Paul Trummel, Associate Professor, Communication and Rhetoric (Retired)."

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