NEWSLETTER publisher Paul Trummel, tossed out of his apartment for harassing tenants with his acerbic writings, has now written his way into jail. King County Superior Court Judge James Doerty put the citizen-journalist behind bars last month for contempt of court after he persisted in posting "personal information" about others on the Internet.
"He's been in since Feb. 27," reports Trummel's attorney, Bob Siegel, who last week filed a legal challenge to what he calls the judge's unconstitutional detention ruling. Under the terms of Doerty's order, Trummel is to remain behind bars indefinitely.
Doerty, who evicted Trummel from his subsidized Capitol Hill apartment at Council House last year for misconduct related to publishing and distributing an accusatory newsletter, also ordered Trummel to edit out similar information published on his Web site (contracabal. net). Trummel did. But he recently set up an elaborate new "international edition" (contracabal.org) containing the disputed information. It includes a warning that "state of Washington citizens must proceed no further into this Web site until the supreme court decides otherwise" (referring to his appeal of the original order). He directs state residents to the other "sanitized . . . Washington edition."
That apparently got Doerty's goat. The judge called Trummel in, ruled that he violated the court's order, and sent him directly to jail. "It's a battle of egos now," says Siegel, who contends that his "cantankerous" client has been jailed "at the whim of a judge trying to force a 70-year-old man to say uncle."
The case may be the first here to delve into the constitutional issue of what can be posted on the Internet based on the journalistic standing of the writer or publisher.
Trummel, a former London journalist and college instructor, is semiretired; he considers himself a freelance writer and says he's a bona fide reporter. Doerty says he's not, because he isn't paid for his newsletter/online work. Trummel argues that his often-vicious criticisms are protected by the First Amendment like those of any citizen, regardless of journalistic affiliation. Doerty has ruled that that defense is inapplicable.
The case bears some similarities to that of Vanessa Leggett, a Texas true-crime writer with virtually no reportorial credentials. She recently made headlines for being held a record 168 days in jail after refusing to turn over her notes to a judge in a murder case. The court said she had no standing as a reporter, thus no constitutional press protections.
Though now released, Leggett may appeal her case to the U.S. Supreme Court for a landmark resolution. Dallas attorney Bob Lathan, a First Amendment specialist, recently told the American Journalism Review that the amendment exists "not for the protection of a journalist but to protect and guarantee that the public has a free flow of information."
Doerty's jail order was quickly criticized by Trummel supporters. "This case is a scandal to freelance writers and journalists around the country," says National Writers Union member and Milwaukee book review editor Michael J. Lowrey. Seattle freelancer and Christian Science Monitor contributor Dean Patton says Trummel's work has the same "rights to free expression and publication" as stories in The New York Times.
Trummel claims he was probing corruption and discrimination last year at the 163-unit Council House residence for seniors when Doerty booted him for harassment (see "Fighting Words," May 31, 2001). The court ordered him to not go within 500 feet of the facility, and Trummel had to give up his subsidized apartment for a Motel 6.
Management and residents at the HUD-operated facility say Trummel published unfounded accusations in a self- distributed newsletter and on his Web site. House manager Stephen Mitchell, who was depicted online by Trummel as a turbaned terrorist, claims Trummel "terrorized" the home; resident Nathaniel Stahl labeled him "vicious and dangerous."
As part of his harassment finding, Doerty ordered Trummel to delete accusations and personal attacks from his Web site. Eventually Trummel complied.
But the information is now on display at his "shadow Web site," as he calls it, including biting commentary in which he refers to two Council House officials as Tall Pygmy and D.R. Sillyman and calls their attorney Minnie Mouse. He takes numerous shots at Doerty, too, calling him "disingenuous and biased."
The jail order signed by Doerty ordered Trummel held "indefinitely, until he complies with the order."
"So," says attorney Siegel, "you've got an aging professor of journalism, with four forms of arthritis and a prostate problem, in jail." As for Doerty's open-ended order—"until he complies"—Siegel wonders, "How can he comply? He doesn't have a computer in jail. He could do life!"