Free speech case has a sharp tongue
OLYMPIA – The old people filed in, leaning on canes and a walker. They peered around the ornate courtroom.
“If he were here, I’d spit in his eye,” one elderly woman declared.
“Maybe he died,” a man said, sounding hopeful.
The woman next to him nodded.
“That’d sure make things easier,” she said.
The state Supreme Court on Thursday heard the bizarre case of Paul Trummel, an elderly British journalist booted from low-income elderly housing in Seattle and jailed for four months because of his newsletters and Web site, in which he harangues people who cross him. The four-year case has become an internationally publicized tug of war between his neighbors’ claims of harassment and Trummel’s right to free speech.
In print, the incredibly prolific Trummel has labeled his enemies “whores of academe” and compared his former landlords to Nazis. On his Web site, www.contracabal.org, he depicts a judge as a poodle.
According to court documents, one of his newsletters called one neighbor – on her deathbed – a “pandering pygmy.” When indignant residents told him to leave the dying woman alone, he allegedly responded with a follow-up article predicting that she would soon be going to “a much warmer climate.”
Trummel was apparently just as abrasive in person. According to testimony from his former neighbors, he called one man “a disgusting runt” and mocked elderly women during Tai Chi class. Residents described him prowling the complex after midnight, his ear pressed to apartment doors, gathering “news” about noise violators. He would print his dispatches on a sophisticated printer in his apartment and hang them on residents’ doors each morning.
In 2001, the housing complex, Council House, went to court to seek an anti-harassment order.
“Simply put, Mr. Trummel believes that his former position as a journalist, of which he is justly proud, somehow gives him the right and license to be abusive and hurtful to the interests of others,” Council House’s lawyers told King County Superior Court Judge James Doerty. “He apparently feels compelled to create controversy wherever he goes so he may have something to write and complain about.”
Attached were statements from more than 40 Council House residents.
“He came up to me, put his forehead against mine and shouted ‘Get off my back, you racist. I have proof you are a racist and I am going to put it in my paper,’ ” said Morris Sharlup.
“While accosting me, he said twice ‘I will get you, you little runt,’ ” said Nathaniel Stahl.
“Other residents … tremble with terror whenever they see him,” said Julia Kasdan.
Trummel denies that he was trying to intimidate anyone. He says the allegations against him were lies cooked up by Council House’s administrators. He insists that he’s a legitimate journalist intent on exposing “federal violations and possible misappropriation of federal funds,” among other alleged problems.
“I stand by the truth of what I have written and published,” he told Doerty. “I have knowledge and an opinion that the public wishes to read.”
As proof of his authenticity, he points to press association membership cards from Brussels and London. Even if his “satire” offended residents, Trummel’s attorney argued in King County, it was still protected by the First Amendment.
Judge Doerty didn’t see things that way. In a series of anti-harassment orders starting in 2001, he banned Trummel from Council House, and ordered him not to contact any of the 160 residents or staff.
“This is distressing to me,” the judge said at the time. “I don’t like the idea of putting people out on the street under an anti-harassment order, but … I don’t see any other way to do it.”
Trummel moved to an inexpensive hotel in Renton. He had his dog euthanized. But apparently using sources living at Council House, he kept publishing stories about the residents and administration on his Web site.
“As a journalist, I have a duty to report criminal and unethical behavior,” he told the court.
Finally, Doerty ordered him to delete – by midnight – all names, addresses or “other personal information” about Council House people on the Web site.
Trummel apparently did that. But he then set up an “international edition” that he said wasn’t subject to a U.S. judge’s edicts.
In February 2002, Doerty found him in contempt of court. Trummel, with no lawyer present, was arrested and jailed. After two months, the judge took away most of Trummel’s phone privileges. He was put in solitary confinement, and let out of his cell just one hour a day.
The case made international news, with writers unions and journalism associations blasting the judge. By the time Trummel’s appeal of lower court decisions reached the Supreme Court this week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, the Seattle Weekly, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the United Kingdom’s National Union of Journalists had filed briefs in the case. The documents in the case now form a stack 18 inches tall.
“This now internationally notorious case presents the appalling spectacle of an elderly journalist thrown in jail and forced to endure several weeks in solitary confinement for exercising rights guaranteed by the United States’ First Amendment” and other declarations of human rights, one brief said.
“The price of freedom of religion or of speech or of the press is that we must put up with, and even pay for, a good deal of rubbish,” ACLU staff attorney Aaron Caplan wrote, quoting a 1944 dissent by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson.
Doerty insisted that it’s a case of harassment, not free speech. He called Trummel “a poseur, a phony” and “a mean old man.”
“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,” the judge wrote. “Nobody has license to behave that way, but apparently anybody can get a press card. Whoever gave Mr. Trummel his should be consulting their lawyers and their insurance carriers.”
Finally, Trummel blinked, sort of. His stories remain on the Web site, with the names slightly modified. Administrator Stephen Mitchell, for example, is “Stephen A. M-tch-ll.”
After 111 days in jail, Trummel was released. An appeals court later upheld Doerty’s rulings.
In oral arguments Thursday, several Supreme Court justices questioned whether Doerty’s orders were too severe.
“It sounds a bit drastic to just throw someone out on the street,” said Chief Justice Gerry Alexander.
Justice Barbara Madsen questioned why the no-contact order included all 160 residents – some of whom were Trummel’s friends – instead of just the 43 who complained. Justice Jim Johnson said that residents weren’t forced to look at Trummel’s Web site.
“What’s the harm here?” he said. The Supreme Court will likely take several months to issue a ruling.
Interestingly, Trummel doesn’t seem to think that the First Amendment applies to some of his critics. In 2000, after one resident allegedly hurled his walker at two women, Trummel promptly demanded an interview with the women in a formal letter listing his membership in five professional associations.
In a follow-up letter, however, his tone changed.
“I understand that you have publicly challenged the veracity of statements that I have published,” he said. “I remind you that making defamatory statements without justification shows malicious intent.”
Such “hate speech,” he said, isn’t protected by the First Amendment.