Retirement home blues
By Gene Johnson ~ The Associated Press
SEATTLE -- Soon after moving into a retirement home, Paul Trummel began complaining that his neighbors fell asleep with their TVs blaring or flushed their toilets during quiet hours. Then he really turned up the heat by starting a Web site accusing tenants and staff members of housing-law violations and conspiracies.
The Web site landed him in jail for 3 1/2 months and made the 68-year-old an unlikely hero to free-speech advocates in a positively bizarre First Amendment case.
Trummel was locked up Feb. 27 by Superior Court Judge James Doerty after refusing to remove from his Web site the phone numbers and addresses of Council House administrators. The judge had said that Trummel's posting of the information was harassment.
The judge released Trummel on Monday but gave him a new Friday deadline for taking down the addresses and phone numbers. Trummel said he has not decided whether to comply.
"This is a dangerous order from a dangerous judge," said Sandra Baron, executive director of the Libel Defense Resource Center in New York. "All he's alleged to have done is publish names and phone numbers on the Internet. It's not against the law to do so."
Evicted from home
Trummel moved into the federally subsidized retirement home in 1998 and was evicted in April 2001 because of the dispute. Others at Council House consider him a crank.
Trummel, citing what he describes only as "sources," has claimed in his Web postings that the home's board of directors conspired to exclude blacks in appointing a new administrator. Trummel is white. He has also asserted that building administrator Steve Mitchell sympathizes with Muslim terrorists, has a "sexual dysfunction" -- homosexuality -- and intimidated tenants into testifying against Trummel in the case.
Mitchell has denied Trummel's assertions, saying: "I'm a healthy, 37-year-old male. I can handle the stress of having him say I'm a Muslim terrorist sympathizer. But to a 93-year-old woman, losing sleep because of stress is hazardous. People are terrified of him."
Nathaniel Stahl, a 59-year-old tenant, said, "It's been horribly scary."
The Department of Housing and Urban Development found Trummel's claims baseless, a spokesman said.
"Factually, the case is about a mean old man who becomes angry and vicious when he doesn't get his own way," the judge said.
Baron, the libel expert, said that unless there are threats, it is rare for speech alone to be deemed harassment. She said that if Trummel has defamed the retirement home, it can sue him. Council House managers said they do not want to sue Trummel because he is broke.
Trummel claims to be a reporter and is a member of the National Writer's Union, though he has never been employed as a journalist.
He claims to have been director of the University Press at the University of Massachusetts in Boston; the school said he merely advised a short-lived, student-run project there. Until reminded otherwise, he also claims to hold two doctorates -- from the University of Washington and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.
He was kicked out of a UW master's program because he did not take the proper courses, prompting him to barrage the faculty and staff with e-mails. At RPI, he was only a graduate student, and he was fired from an assistant professorship at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported.
As for whether he will take down the offending material, Trummel said: "I had an accused murderer in the cell on one side of me and an accused rapist on the other. I don't want to be back in that situation. But I stood my ground for 111 days so far on an ethical principle. This might be my swan song."