July 5, 2016
An independent journalist for Health Impact News was recently called before a judge, who implied that her news reporting might land her on the wrong side of the law.
The warning came as part of a larger pattern by the Alabama justice system of intimidating those who have questioned the activities of the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR), specifically the branch performing functions known in most states as Child Protective Services (CPS).
Health Impact News reporter Terri LaPoint was outside the courtroom with the Prince family, who was there for a hearing to attempt to regain custody of a child who was taken by police from the breast of its nursing mother while still in the hospital. She had been invited as a friend of the family, and had previously written about the case.
‘Play ball,’ judge says
“I had no idea that I would be taken into court today!” LaPoint later wrote. “I was simply outside (the courtroom) as a friend of the family when they called me in. I was only dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, since I never intended to enter the courtroom.”
Alabama Circuit Judge Corey B. Moore called LaPoint up to the bench, over the objections of the court-appointed attorney for one of the mothers who was also trying to regain custody from DHR. The attorney noted that LaPoint was not part of the case and had no legal representation. But the judge called her in anyway, then simply notified her that since she had no lawyer present, she did not have to say anything.
The judge then advised her to retain a lawyer and said she should familiarize herself with Alabama state confidentiality laws for juveniles.
The Prince family’s attorney later told LaPoint that the judge was not giving her a “gag order,” but simply wanted her to “play ball.”
Larger pattern of suppression
The incident might be interpreted as simply a slightly overzealous effort to protect child confidentiality by a basically well-meaning judge, if not for the larger context.
LaPoint has reported previously on the ongoing scandal of Alabama DHR essentially kidnapping newborn infants from their mothers’ sides mere hours after birth. She was actually present when the Prince child was taken away.
Health Impact News also reported how following a June 24 hearing on the Prince case, nearly everyone who had attended to support the mother – including the child’s great-grandparents and several reporters – was soon sued by the DHR-appointed temporary guardian of the child. The lawsuit demanded that all online material about the case be removed.
Notably, no custody finding has been issued yet, making the guardian’s legal right to sue highly questionable.
Another apparent effort to stifle reporting on the case came after Health Impact News published a video of the officer telling the family that he did not need a warrant to take the Prince baby from his mother’s breast. The article then published excerpts from an article in which a sheriff from the same county explicitly contradicted this claim.
Within days, the sheriff’s article had been pulled from the Internet.
Another journalist to recently run afoul of Alabama’s censorship campaign is blogger Roger Shuler. After a court ordered him to remove his articles covering the issue of the DHR kidnapping children, Shuler at first refused. He was then jailed for contempt. He was never charged with a crime and received no sentence.
“Even those who longed for his muzzling, and there are many, did not see it coming like this: with Mr. Shuler sitting in jail indefinitely, and now on the list of imprisoned journalists worldwide kept by the Committee to Protect Journalists,” The New York Times wrote about the case. “There, in the company of jailed reporters in China, Iran and Egypt, is Mr. Shuler, the only person on the list in the Western Hemisphere.”
After five months in jail, Shuler bent to the judge’s demands and removed the articles.
“After five months in a very difficult environment … I felt my physical well-being was at stake,” Shuler said.