Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Meet Marie Torre: She was the longest jailed U.S. journalist in a civil case--until my blog came along

Marie Torre
Marie Torre, without doubt, is the most famous U.S. journalist to be jailed in a civil case. That might be in part because Torre's incarceration came from writing about a famous person--the late actress Judy Garland.

Torre went on, however, to be a journalism pioneer in her own right. That's good because a record she once held now has been surpassed--by yours truly.

How big was the case that landed Marie Torre in jail? You can get a feel for that by viewing the newsreel footage, via YouTube, at the end of this post.

The 1958 lawsuit was styled Garland v. Torre, which had its roots in an article Torre wrote about Garland for the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune. In the article, a CBS executive was quoted as saying Garland did not want to appear in a network television special because she considered herself to be "terribly fat" at the time.

Garland sued for defamation, and Torre went to jail when a judge held her in criminal contempt for refusing to identify her source during depositions. For 56 years, Torre's 10-day stay in jail stood as the longest for a U.S. journalist in a civil matter, one that had nothing to do with allegations of criminal activity.

That record fell, in a big way, when I was jailed for 155 days--from October 23, 2013, until March 26, 2014--because of a defamation lawsuit that Alabama GOP political operative Rob Riley and lobbyist Liberty Duke filed. Circuit Judge Claud Neilson ordered me held for alleged civil contempt of a temporary restraining order (TRO) and preliminary injunction. I broke Torre's record largely because civil contempt is open ended--Neilson ordered me jailed until certain items were removed from this blog--while criminal contempt usually is limited to a relatively brief time frame--perhaps five or 10 days.

A reasonable person might think criminal contempt would be a worse punishment than civil contempt, but it's actually the other way around. There is quite a bit of debate in the legal world about whether open-ended civil contempt, most often applied in cases of unpaid child support, should be lawful--and whether it's effective.

In my case, it neither was lawful nor effective. More than 200 years of First Amendment law, most famously found in the landmark 1931 U.S. Supreme Court case Near v. Minnesota, holds that TROs and preliminary injunctions are unlawful prior restraints in defamation cases. I spent five months in jail for writing articles that never have been found to be defamatory at trial; in fact, there never was a trial in my case. And there was no jury because Riley and Duke, inexplicably, did not seek one--even though longstanding law holds that defamation cases must be heard by a jury, so that a judge cannot act as a one-man censor.

The civil contempt in my case wasn't effective because, like Garland v. Torre, it attracted national and international news. The New York Times and Al-Jazeera were among the numerous news outlets that spread the supposedly defamatory information about Riley and Duke around the world. Civil contempt is designed to be coercive, to force someone to do something, such as pay child support. But it loses its purpose when a lawsuit causes the alleged defamatory news to be spread around the globe.

More importantly, a journalist cannot lawfully be found in contempt of a TRO or injunction that is an unlawful prior restraint to begin with. Despite that, I likely still would be in jail if my wife, Carol, had not figured out how to remove certain information from my blog.

Alternet, in an article by Nicole Flatow, ranked my case No. 1 on its list of "The 10 Most Appalling Failures of the American Justice System" in 2013. I remain the only U.S. journalist to be jailed since 2006. The other five journalists jailed in the 2000s involved their reporting on criminal matters, and the incarcerations probably were lawful under a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case styled Branzburg v. Hayes.

What happened to Marie Torre? Her stand for the First Amendment became quite a cause in journalism circles. Dorothy Kilgallen, a journalist who later became best known as a panelist on the game show What's My Line?, wrote in her syndicated column:

I never thought I would live to see the day when anyone would be thrown into the jug for saying Judy Garland had problems. . . . Stripping the current celebrated cause of its legal passementerie, Miss Torre lost her freedom for refusing to say who told her that Judy had an inferiority complex, would not make up her mind about anything, and was 'terribly fat.'

That is like being sent to the Bastille for reporting that the weather was cold yesterday and the Empire State Building is situated at Fifth Ave. and 34th St.

Marie Torre went on to become the first female anchor (1962-77) at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and was one of the first female anchors in the country. Perhaps being the target of a misguided lawsuit helped her career, I, for one, certainly hope so.

I guess Marie Torre and I will always be kindred spirits of a sort. I have become one of her fans and find myself periodically looking up information about her on the Web. If jail is hard on a man--and I can tell you for sure that it is--I can only guess that it is even more unpleasant for a woman. That Marie Torre stood her ground, and stood up for freedom of the press, tells me she had principles that should be admired.

Ms. Torre did, for sure, stand her ground. She died in 1997, at age 72, and an article about her death in The New York Times reported the following:

Miss Torre, who shortened her last name from Torregrossa, was born in Brooklyn. She joined the Herald Tribune staff in 1955. As a radio and television columnist in 1957, she quoted a CBS executive, whom she did not name, as saying that Judy Garland was balking about doing a CBS special ''because she thinks she is terribly fat.''

Miss Garland sued the network for $1.39 million, and Miss Torre, as a witness in a pretrial hearing, was ordered by the court to disclose the name of her source. She refused, arguing that a reporter should not be compelled to reveal sources in court because such an order violated the First Amendment's guarantee of press freedom.

''She never revealed his name, even to members of our family,'' Mr. Lopez said yesterday.


Anonymous said...

Cool post, LS. Thanks for an interesting bit of journalism history.

Deb said...

Do women like Megyn Kelly even know who Marie Torre is?

Anonymous said...

Love the newsreel footage. Really takes me back.

Brian Keith O'Hara said...

She was a true journalist, proving that freedom isn't free, but is well worth it.

Judy G said...

I never said I was fat, dammit!

Anonymous said...

One of the most interesting and informative posts you've ever written. Nice job.

Sid said...

I remember Dorothy Kilgallen on "What's My Line?" That's sure to date me. Sounds like she wrote far more scathing stuff about Judy Garland than Marie Torre ever did.

Anonymous said...

At least she showed up in court.

legalschnauzer said...

So did I, even though, according to an attorney who reviewed the sealed file, I never was summoned to go to court. Seems you don't have much of a point to make.

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