Supreme Retort

On the lam, cranky journalist Paul Trummel scores a First Amendment victory.

Paul Trummel, the 72-year-old jailbird journalist who is now on the run from Seattle authorities, has just won a reversal in his landmark case on Internet freedom of speech. Score one for Trummel and the Web. In a ruling Thursday, March 30, the state Supreme Court found that a King County Superior Court judge abused his discretion by putting restrictions on what Trummel could say on his Web site.

That controversial restriction—ordering Trummel to edit offending passages and causing a worldwide reaction by journalists and others—was part of a 2003 finding by Judge James Doerty. He concluded that Trummel had, in person and over the Net, harassed managers and residents at Council House, a Seattle home for the elderly from which he'd been evicted. The harassment finding itself was upheld. But Doerty had later ordered Trummel's Web site exorcised of information that, at least in part, had been obtained from friends, violating a "surveillance" prohibition that was part of the order. That went too far, said the higher court, vacating the editing order and ostensibly leaving Trummel free to fire at will.

Via e-mail, the verbose Trummel surprisingly had little to say. "I have no comment at this time," he wrote. But then, he's lying low, fleeing a new $5,000 Seattle Municipal Court arrest warrant and taking potshots at his pursuers from cyberspace. City Attorney Tom Carr still considers Trummel armed (with a portable computer) and dangerous (at least when he clicks on the e-mail "send" button). Carr has charged Trummel with six counts of misusing his Web site in further violation of the original anti-harassment order and for failing to appear in court. In turn, Trummel, over the Internet, has indicted Carr as "the devil incarnate" and seeks his impeachment. Carr has "subverted legal and prosecutorial process," says Trummel on his Web site. He is spamming and flaming the e-mail inboxes of Carr and his legal staff, city officials say, and has added the city attorney to his Web site's enemy list. "I'm the one depicted as a pandering leprechaun," says Carr, who is pictured on Trummel's www.contracabal.com in a doctored-up green Mad Hatter top hat. It's so far unclear how the new high court ruling will affect the city's charges, though the fugitive warrant remains in effect.

A semiretired writer/editor, Trummel has racked up a series of arrests, court hearings, appeals, and, in 2003, spent 111 days in jail as part of the five-year battle. The defiant British expatriate was evicted in 2001 for harassing management and some fellow residents at Council House on Capitol Hill. His chosen weapon then was a newsletter ("Saturday, a great shadow descended over the laundry room as an obese woman clad only in a sheer nylon dress lumbered in . . . "). Living elsewhere, he continued his caustic sorties from the elaborate Web site (now with accusatory pop-ups), claiming Council House managers abused residents and misappropriated funds—charges never proved. A manager was pictured as a turbaned terrorist, and some residents were described as "pandering pygmies." Hit with new harassment charges, Trummel was ordered by Judge Doerty to edit what the court considered offensive material from his site or face jail.

Trummel altered his cyber postings but launched a shadow Web site with the disputed material. He considered himself a professional journalist—he was a member of several journalist organizations and says he worked as a journalism professor. That aside, he argued his speech was protected, as any citizen's would be under the First Amendment. Doerty disagreed on both counts and sent Trummel to jail until he or someone else edited the Web site. After more than three months in stir—turning him into a legal and journalistic cause célèbre—Trummel tired of his car-thieving cellmates and caved. He did appeal the free-speech issue, however. Among those filing briefs on his behalf were the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Society of Journalists, and Seattle Weekly. In 2004, the state Court of Appeals ruled against him, saying the trial court rightly focused on his conduct rather than his speech and that, effectively, the First Amendment was not in play. Trummel appealed to the state Supreme Court.

In the ruling, the higher court agreed with the appeals court that Doerty had "properly focused on the speaker's conduct and not the message, consistent with the Constitution." But "we hold that the trial court abused its discretion by concluding that posting a story on the Internet, based on an incident that was relayed by friends, violated the 'surveillance' provision of the anti-harassment orders. As the ACLU notes, an order saying 'do not place petitioner under surveillance' does not mean 'do not say anything about petitioner.' If the original order is interpreted in this manner, the ACLU claims it would be unconstitutional. Accordingly, we hold that the trial court abused its discretion in finding Trummel in contempt on October 1, 2001, and October 5, 2001, and vacate the orders of contempt. As a result, we also vacate the trial court's award of attorney fees for [Council House administrator Stephen] Mitchell and Council House for these contempt proceedings."

The justices found "substantial evidence in the record documenting Trummel's conduct, which includes yelling and screaming at staff and residents, threatening residents, spying on residents, and disrupting meetings." However, the court said in a decision written by Justice Barbara Madsen, "while we conclude that the anti-harassment order was properly based on conduct and not on constitutionally protected activity and that the trial court acted within its discretion in fashioning the order to encompass nonparty residents in the context of their residency, we also believe that the restriction prohibiting Trummel from contacting Council House residents in any way and at any location . . . is [also] in excess of the trial court's authority."

In the separate, ongoing Seattle Municipal Court cases, Trummel argues he was always free to comment via the Net once the case was appealed. The City Attorney's office felt that Doerty's original ruling was the prevailing finding; the new Supreme Court ruling throws that issue into turmoil, and it might have to be hashed out in court. Police, court, and city attorney records show Council House has made six complaints in the past two years claiming Trummel violated the original anti-harassment order with his Web site postings and e-mails. He has expanded his charges of Council House elder abuse, including claims that one resident died from a homicide. Trummel has also posted a touched-up picture of Seattle Mayor "Phat Greg" Nickels with an all-day sucker and another of Judge Doerty as Alfred E. Neuman.

A failure-to-appear arrest warrant was first issued in 2005 after Trummel was a no-show on the six new harassment allegations. He got that warrant quashed, but then he failed to show again in January this year, and a new warrant was issued. Kevin Kilpatrick, a senior city attorney, says that made Trummel unhappy. "He's gotten a list of all the people in our department and fires off [e-mail] broadsides to everyone," says Kilpatrick. "We don't know where he is." Trummel does have a post office box in Renton and previously lived in motels in that area. Trummel claims his Web site was recently knocked out by an e-mail flood inspired by his enemies. Since re-establishing the site March 11, he's had 60,000 hits, he says.

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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