Monday, October 10, 2016

Rural journalist James T. Neal dies; his 1965 First Amendment fight made national headlines

James T. Neal
James T. Neal, who was third-generation owner, editor and publisher of the Noblesville Daily Ledger in central Indiana, died Sept. 27. Neal, who spent 36 years as a journalist, 25 of them writing a column for the daily, was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 1990 for his career-long commitment to freedom of the press and open government. Neal made national headlines in 1965 for his defense of the First Amendment. His granddaughter, Alexandra Petri, an author and blogger for The Washington Post, detailed the 1965 events in a recent story.

Neal was "arrested and charged with contempt of court for a column he had written criticizing a judge’s new policy to crack down on traffic violations," Petri writes. His column so incensed Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Edward New "that he would issue him a citation for contempt of court. The citation charged Neal with writing 'a disdainful, despicable, scurrilous and contemptuous article about this court' that was 'intended to inflict ridicule and indignity on the image of the Hamilton Circuit Court and embarrass the judge thereof, and all law enforcement officers in the county.'”

In his column "Neal had called the newly announced policy, which would send all traffic violators to Circuit Court, 'an excellent example of shotgun justice,'" Petri writes. Neal wrote: "It isn’t necessary to upset a whole community to get at the handful of motorists who run wild on the highways. If the past proves a good example, what will happen is some kindly old lady will spend the night in jail for driving too slow, while some mad motorist charged with manslaughter will eventually stall his trial right out of court.”

Following the column and the contempt of court charge, the sheriff showed at the paper to arrest Neal, Petri writes. "New recused himself and appointed a special panel of three judges from which a new judge was to be selected for the case. It was perhaps not the most impartial panel that could have been imagined; one of the members was the judge’s brother. New took the further step of removing legal notices—a source of advertising revenue—from the Daily Ledger. (The Indianapolis Star quoted him as saying, 'I am well within my rights. I don’t see how I could honestly approve publication of legal notices in a paper which holds the court in contempt.'"

The public outcry, which included a story by Time magazine and action from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, was swift," Petri writes. The Indianapolis Star wrote in an editorial, “The reaction of the Hamilton circuit judge to newspaper criticism seemed strangely out of place in an American court. It would have been more in the order of things in Castro’s Cuba, Soviet Russia, Red China or other countries where public officials consider themselves, like kings of old, beyond criticism.”

Through the whole process "Neal kept up criticism of the judge’s policies, this time with an editorial pointing out that New was 'issuing court orders to obtain payment of unbudgeted expenses,' which 'denies public scrutiny of the judge’s accounts.'" Petri writes. "Finally, after considerable delays, the special judge chosen from the panel of three announced that he was withholding judgment, on the grounds that he had no jurisdiction." But it took another three years, and a ruling by Indiana Supreme Court, before the charge was finally dismissed.

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