An order issued by Baldwin County Circuit Judge Joseph Norton in early November has resulted in a website run by a Daphne online investigative reporter being taken offline while he is on the run to avoid arrest stemming from his publication of expunged criminal records.
Journalist and blogger John Caylor’s website, insider-magazine.com, was removed from the web by internet domain registrar and host GoDaddy.com Dec. 20 in response to Norton’s civil suit ruling on behalf of Scott Smith III, a local attorney whose expunged court records were published on the site. In addition to publishing those records pertaining to Smith’s arrest and pretrial diversion in Dothan 14 years ago for alleged possession of methamphetamine, Caylor has made unsubstantiated claims regarding Smith’s supposed connections to criminal enterprise.
Caylor has been on the run from Daphne officials since May when he was arrested and charged with a Class B misdemeanor for publishing Smith’s expunged records. A second warrant for his arrest was issued May 4, the morning after a hearing in which Daphne City Judge Michael Hoyt ordered Caylor to remove Smith’s records. Smith filed another complaint against Caylor claiming the records had not been removed. Though the records could not be found on insider-magazine.com after mid-morning, Hoyt issued another arrest warrant and Caylor fled to Florida.
Smith had also filed a civil lawsuit against Caylor — a complaint immediately sealed by Judge Norton. When Caylor failed to show for trial in that case in early November, Norton ruled for Smith and issued a permanent injunction Nov. 4 against Caylor and anyone connected to him or “working in concert or participation” from posting Smith’s records, linking to them or “in any other way offering the public plaintiff’s expunged record.”
Norton also enjoined Caylor and essentially any other media from running Smith’s records or otherwise reporting Caylor’s unsubstantiated assertions about the attorney. Caylor said he believes Norton’s ruling — much like the Alabama law under which he was arrested — is an unconstitutional prior restraint upon his and other media outlets.
“Judge Norton is totally out of bounds,” he said. “He has violated his constitutional oath of office to uphold the constitution of the United States and Alabama and he should be removed from office.”
Alabama’s expungement law has come under criticism for the article that criminalizes publication of expunged records, as journalism groups and also some legislators believe it indeed represents an unconstitutional prior restraint — meaning the government essentially censoring the publication of certain information. Lagniappe has spoken with some state legislators who believe that portion of the law should be removed in the upcoming session.
Norton did not return a call to discuss his ruling and why he does not consider barring other media from publishing Smith’s records, under threat of contempt of court, to be a prior restraint.
On the morning of Dec. 16, Caylor said he was arrested by Bay County, Florida, sheriff’s deputies on a warrant regarding his failure to report for probation 10 years ago after being convicted on a misdemeanor in 2006. Caylor said that conviction was for disorderly conduct in the county courthouse when he was unable to obtain public records he’d requested regarding the death of Martin Lee Anderson at the county’s juvenile boot camp. Records do indicate Caylor was arrested and ultimately bonded out after spending more than two weeks in jail. He faces a Feb. 1 hearing in Bay County.
Norton’s order was served to GoDaddy Dec. 15. Caylor said he had five days to respond but was unable to do so because he was in jail and didn’t even know his website was in danger of being shut down.
“I was given no chance to respond. I never even received an abuse report,” he said. “I was sucker punched by Judge Norton.”
In an email from GoDaddy, provided by Caylor, the company said because it did not receive any motion objecting to the implementation of Norton’s order, it suspended hosting the site. The email also includes the original abuse report, which itemized the links GoDaddy said needed to be removed from the web.
Besides Smith’s records, the complaint pointed out headlines and posts related to unsubstantiated allegations of criminal behavior by Smith and his family. But GoDaddy also said posts about Smith’s boss, Judge Ginny Granade, as well as a recording of a call made by U.S. Marshal Josh Devine to Caylor should be removed as well. Additionally, a photo of Smith in his law school graduation cap and gown posing with U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions was marked for removal.
GoDaddy would not offer any specifics about its actions concerning Caylor’s website, and refused to answer whether it was its interpretation of Norton’s ruling that led the company to decide which links should be removed, or if that list was provided by the court or someone else. GoDaddy said its policy is to answer such questions only if subpoenaed.
Despite the injunction, Caylor said he is working to get his site back up under jcaylor.com and news-alabama.com.
“But a lot of documents I need are locked up by Judge Norton,” he said.
Caylor said he believes that by writing about “powerful people” he has become a target and that his arrests last year are proof of that. He said the fact Norton immediately sealed the civil suit against him showed the judge was intent on ultimately having his site taken down.
“The wanted all reference to Granade, Josh Devine, Sessions and Smith taken down,” he said.
Currently Caylor said he’s practically destitute because of his legal troubles and had to leave Baldwin County to avoid arrest. But he said if the part of the state law that made his actions criminal were repealed, he would come back to Alabama.
“If the State Legislature repeals the law, I will come back. I’m going to challenge all the major media of there to expose corruption,” he said.