Columnist

My grandfather, enjoying the First Amendment. (Family photo)

“All things considered, it would seem like a good idea to write about my dog,” wrote James T. Neal.

It was Tuesday, July 20, 1965. Neal was editor of the Noblesville Daily Ledger, a small Indiana newspaper. The day before, he had been 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.

The case made local, then national headlines: EDITOR AT NOBLESVILLE RAPS JUDGE; ARRESTED (Rushville Daily Republican of Rushville, Ind.); CHARGE OF CONTEMPT FILED AGAINST EDITOR (Indianapolis Star); IRKED JURIST HAS EDITOR ARRESTED (The News-Palladium of Benton Harbor, Mich).

Neal had not expected to make national news defending freedom of the press. He had not expected his “County Line” column to make news of any kind. As he told the Kokomo Morning Times, “I write a 700-word piece for the County Line almost daily so I never know what to expect from each paragraph.”

He had certainly not anticipated that one paragraph in his Saturday column would so incense 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.”

No column would have merited arrest, but this one was considerably milder than the citation made it sound. Neal had called the newly announced policy, which would send all traffic violators to Circuit Court, “an excellent example of shotgun justice,” noting, “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.”

So he was “dumbfounded” (his words, according to the Indianapolis Star) when the sheriff showed up at the Noblesville Daily Ledger office the Monday after the column ran to place him under arrest.

“I don’t mind if Neal wishes to criticize any of my judgments,” New said. “This is his right as a reporter. It is part of freedom of the press. But when he projects himself into the future, such as the reference to a little old lady, he is just crystal-balling. This is neither accurate nor good reporting. He’s making a prophecy of something that might never come. It is, in my opinion, direct and criminal contempt of court.”

New released Neal on his own recognizance (originally, the bail had been set at $50,000), 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 was swift. Time Magazine wrote up the case. A representative of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union said he was “appalled.” The Indianapolis Star wrote a vehement editorial in Neal’s defense. It observed, “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.”

When Neal appeared in court for a hearing, spectators in black armbands packed the courtroom to show solidarity. Neal received a flood of calls, letters and telegrams from around the country — including, he said, a message from a man who asked to be billed for a year’s subscription as a sign of support.

Neal’s attorney asked for the case to be dismissed. So did the prosecutor, Walter A. Cornell, stating, “Just as the individual must be free to speak his mind, so the press must be free to publish its opinion.”

While waiting for his fate to be determined, 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.”

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.

“The special judge’s 16-page analysis of this case involving freedom of the press appears to have used the wrong facts to arrive at a wrong conclusion,” fumed the Daily Ledger’s editorial, entitled “Ruling Was Incredible”: “A special judge in effect ruled that the editor of the Ledger stood convicted of contempt of court by the original judge and while the law prevented the judge from punishing the defendant, it also denies the defendant the opportunity to purge himself of the conviction.”

The Indianapolis Star agreed. “The ruling leaves unanswered the question whether an editor can be summarily called to answer in court if he offends a judge by what he publishes,” it editorialized. “Special Judge [Robert] McNevin advised … Editor Neal to forget about defending the freedom of the press. Yet freedom of the press is precisely the issue.”

“The rights of the press are as much on trial as I am,” Neal told the Kokomo Morning Times.

It was not until three years, another two judges and an Indiana Supreme Court ruling later that Neal and the Ledger managed to answer the question. In September 1968, the charge was finally dismissed.

James T. Neal was my grandfather. He passed away this week.

In the days since losing him I have been hunting down this story in newspaper archives — partly to pay tribute to his work for journalism, but also, selfishly, so that I could hear from him again. And he is there to be found, in all the stories, in every interview, with his familiar quiet humor and steady dedication to doing what was right. Each sentence is a gift, another chance to wrap a familiar, beloved voice around myself like an old sweater.

In theory, there is no form of writing so transient as newspaper writing. Books are transient enough, and they are supposed to be placed carefully on shelves and treasured, whereas newspapers are printed with the understanding that they will be thrown away and used to wrap dead fish. How big or permanent can such writing possibly be?

But perhaps this is the wrong question.

“Freedom of the press is not a freedom for newspapers or other news media such as radio and television but for the people themselves,” the Ledger’s 1965 editorial on the court case concluded. “The press is only a means of communication by which the people inform themselves and express their views.”

The truly big stories never announce themselves. They start as small things; echo; grow immense. I find it strangely fitting that on Tuesday, July 20, 1965, the day after the arrest and citation, when my grandfather’s regular column appeared — as it had done and would continue to do six days a week for 25 years — he chose to dedicate it entirely to his Saint Bernard. (“Column On Dog On Safe Ground,” observed the Indianapolis Star.)

What I am learning, slowly, from writing every day, the thing that I am realizing my grandfather knew, is that you can actually say all the important, lasting things in the course of saying trivial, transient ones. That when you write about seemingly small matters like dogs and traffic violations what you are really saying is much larger, like, some principles are worth fighting for, and don’t worry, it’s going to be all right.