ACLU Asks Judge to Reconsider Order Forcing Minister to Write a Letter of Retraction

Affiliate: ACLU of Georgia
December 11, 2000 12:00 am

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ATLANTA–The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia today asked a state court judge to reconsider his ruling that compels a minister – against his will – to write a letter retracting statements he made in a local newspaper.

“Forcing an individual to disavow his public comments is an unprecedented judicial remedy and strikes at the heart of the First Amendment,” said Robert L. Tsai, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Georgia, which represents the Reverend Riles.

The controversy started on October 14th, when Reverend Riles visited the home of District Attorney Tom Durden to discuss the DA’s ongoing investigation of Riles’ sister, Carolyn Brown, the former Liberty County Tax Commissioner, for alleged misuse of county monies.

Although Riles and Durden have been acquainted with one another for years, an argument between the two ensued. Riles was arrested and charged with two misdemeanor offenses: criminal trespass and public drunkenness.

While incarcerated in anticipation of a hearing date, Reverend Riles wrote a letter to the editor of The Liberty Truth News explaining his version of the incident. In the letter, Riles explained that he had approached Durden to discuss the DA’s investigation of his sister, and that “the DA started screaming and shaking [and] I started screaming.” Eventually, Durden ran inside and called the police.

Riles also wrote that both men had been drinking. Reverend Riles acknowledged that he was an alcoholic, and wrote that he believed Durden, too, had a substance abuse problem and should get help.

Riles concluded by writing that “Maybe the truth will save the DA’s life or somebody else’s life. I sincerely believe that the DA is a good man.” The letter was published in the newpaper’s October 26 – November 10, 2000 issue.

On November 28, 2000, Reverend Riles appeared in court to answer the charges. Prepared to show remorse for his actions, the Reverend waived his right to an attorney and pleaded no contest to the charges. The court accepted his plea.

When the matter of sentencing arose, however, Solicitor Edward Colby requested that the court order Reverend Riles to write a letter acknowledging that he made “inaccurate” statements in his previously-published letter and retracting “everything . . . unflattering to the DA.”

The court sentenced Reverend Riles to 60 days in jail, restitution, and probation for one year. Acting on the Solicitor’s request, the Court also ordered Riles, as a condition of probation, to “write a letter of retraction in the Liberty Truth News to be published in next issue or by December 15.”

In legal papers filed today on behalf of Reverend Riles, the ACLU asked the court to vacate the probation condition.

“Every court that has examined the legality of a forced retraction has rejected such government regulation of speech, and we hope that the court promptly rescinds its order,” said Tsai.

In the lawsuit filed today, the ACLU reiterates that Rev. Riles stands by his statements and does not wish to write a retraction. The ACLU also argues that the probation condition – an “unprecedented remedy” – is totally unrelated to the crimes with which Riles was charged; amounts to compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment; and is tantamount to judicial punishment of political speech.

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