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The old man and the screeds

A three-year legal battle between a 70-year-old Seattle retiree and his former apartment building could say a lot about the First Amendment. But will anyone notice amid the venom and invective?'s Alex Johnson reports.
Paul Trummel's incendiary Web writings have cast him as a First Amendment hero to some and a \"crazy old coot\" to others. Trummel says he knows exactly what he's doing. The courts are still trying to sort it all out.
Paul Trummel's incendiary Web writings have cast him as a First Amendment hero to some and a \"crazy old coot\" to others. Trummel says he knows exactly what he's doing. The courts are still trying to sort it all out.Robin Laananen / Seattle Weekly

Paul Trummel enjoys a certain advantage in the scrapes he finds himself in. A tall, distinguished and reserved man of 70 who speaks in complete paragraphs — couched in an accent invariably described as "impeccably British" — Trummel is the last person you would suspect of harboring a samurai's instinct for the jugular. So when he lowers the boom, his many targets rarely know what hit them.

For more than 10 years, Paul Trummel battled what he sees as the corruption of university administration, sometimes in court but always in diamond-hard prose, sparkling in its erudition and glistening with the deadliest venom. To Trummel, who left at least three colleges as a student or teacher under contentious circumstances, self-satisfied university administrators stifled opposition and sabotaged the careers of non-traditional students and teachers through "cabalistic recrimination and blackballing," their "ulterior political agenda" and "campaign of terror" upheld through "totalitarian will" and kangaroo courts.

"[M]ust one overlook the abuse of a system by the few to give an appearance of propriety? Or, should one reveal what one knows in an endeavor to correct the inherent problem and give others the opportunity to avoid similar experiences?" Trummel wrote in 1994.

There has never been any doubt about Trummel's answer. In a three-year dispute with an entirely new set of opponents, he has been hauled into court, evicted from his home, thrown into jail for almost four months and served with an anti-harassment order restricting his movements, which remains in effect. He says he is not deterred, and he has emerged, in the eyes of some, as a First Amendment martyr.

Today, Trummel has set aside his crusade against the academy and turned his poison-tipped pen on the administrators of a federally subsidized apartment building for low-income senior citizens. In a newsletter he created after he moved into Council House in Seattle, and later on his decade-old Web site, Trummel has accused four "neo-fascist" managers and their five "kapos" of misappropriation of federal housing funds, systemic abuse of frail residents and "criminal negligence" leading indirectly to the deaths of two people.Unlike university officials, who are constrained in what they can say by federal educational privacy regulations, the leadership of Council House, which is sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women, is free to fight back. Council House officials contend that one of the people Trummel accuses them of letting die in fact jumped out her window because of his brow-beating.

Noises off
The story begins with collusion over several years between two fascistic administrators. They both used kill-the-messenger techniques to deal with routine landlord/tenant complaints (like noise abatement) over several years. They obtained capricious court orders on perjured testimony in retaliation for reporting alleged crimes and landlord dereliction to government agencies. The present administrator then instilled fear among multiple residents by boasting of his zero-tolerance policies. He publicly referred to this technique as making residents virtual prisoners in their own apartments to control them through fear.
— Paul Trummel, "Perjury and Subornation"

Stephen Mitchell, 39, is the current administrator of Council House, where he has worked for about 10 years. His headaches started in 1999, about a year after Trummel arrived and roughly the same time he was promoted from social worker to the top job.

It began, he remembers, when Trummel submitted a "diatribe" for publication in the Council House residents' newsletter, Connections. The article outlined Trummel's complaint that loud noise was tolerated during the building's quiet hours, documenting what sounds were coming from which residents' units, in addition to middle-of-the-night garbage collection.

The editor of the newsletter, an elderly woman, ran Trummel's article after shortening and editing it, "which really [ticked] him off," Mitchell says during an interview in his office, where a stack of papers two feet high towers on a table against the wall. It is Council House's record of the litigation.

On that point, Trummel agrees, perhaps the only topic he and Mitchell can see eye to eye on. "They changed my copy!" he exclaims, leaning forward and stabbing his finger for emphasis.

That triggered Trummel's instinct to poke around more. In short order, he started up his own newsletter, called Disconnections, which expanded on his noise complaints and branched out into some of his other concerns, including the food service, building security and his conclusion that residents' medical complications were treated cavalierly.

"People were getting hurt," Trummel says in a long interview, conducted in a downtown Seattle hotel lobby because he does not want people to know where he moved after he was evicted. "Do I sit back and do nothing?"

Council House officials confronted Trummel. So he moved his writing to the online journal he has maintained for more than a decade.

Laying out his case
When this author commenced his doctoral work at Rensselaer, a professor explained to PhD candidates that they must "behave like Blacks trying to gain admittance to a Jewish country club to obtain an advanced degree at Rensselaer". At first, that statement sounded perverse and bigoted. Later, after experiencing the political machination that existed at Rensselaer (1985) and experienced similar abusive treatment at Council House (1999) it seems that the professor made quite a profound statement. He had, perhaps unknowingly, defined anti-Semitic Semitism.
— Paul Trummel, "Strange Bedfellows"

Contra Cabal, which he started in January 1993, is the organ in which Paul Trummel has meticulously detailed his battles against academic administrators who he believes colluded to deny him a doctorate in rhetoric and communications and therefore a professorship more than a decade ago at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

Now it is home to long, exhaustively footnoted broadsides launched at Mitchell, his predecessor, other Council House residents and staff members, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which he says "continue[s] to turn a blind eye to the mismanagement and resident complaints."

(Independent auditors' reports on Council House operations conducted annually from 2000 through last June all found no violations or impropriety, according to copies provided by the facility's management.)

In the pages of, Stephen Mitchell is a "neo-fascist" who terrorizes the residents of Council House. He forces residents to eat inappropriate meals because the food contract is a cash cow, Trummel says. He ignores noise violations, discriminates against black residents and rewards his supporters with nicer apartments, according to Trummel.

The administrator's "aberrant behavior," including "inveterate lying, hysteria" and a variety of other, even more "bizarre" antics, should have led Council House's directors to refer him for psychiatric evaluation, Trummel alleges.

Because of what he believes was inadequate security after an alleged Muslim terrorist was arrested in Washington state in the weeks before the Millennium celebrations, he portrays Mitchell in a cartoon garbed in an Arab headdress and sporting an Osama bin Laden-like beard.

Most seriously, Trummel writes, Mitchell — whom he accuses of having faked his credentials, a charge that has occasionally been leveled at Trummel himself, apparently inaccurately — "has unlawfully organized incarceration of four residents and his alleged criminal negligence has contributed to two deaths." Mitchell calls that a lie.

Satire has historically ranked as a dominant rhetoric for combating tyranny especially when applied in closed societies. Upon self-recognition, tyrants resort to anger, resentment, violence, stupidity, and litigation. That describes the behavior of directors, management, in-house thugs, and trial court judges, connected with Council House, Seattle. They apparently did not like their reflection so they have used their virtually unlimited wealth to try to destroy the mirror and to manipulate the legal system.
- Paul Trummel, "Satire and Affect"

It is possible that had he written in a more traditional journalistic style, Trummel's complaints would have received a more respectful hearing. But that would not — it could not — be his way.

Whatever impression you get from his prose, Paul Trummel is not a crackpot, and he knows well his words' effect on others' perceptions of him.

He draws a distinction between what he writes and what many of his critics say about him. His reasoning: They indulge in ad hominem attacks — arguments against the man — while he communicates a very serious message in an ancient literary form: classical satire, which he characterizes as "invective with reason."

In "Satire and Affect," one of about 90 dense essays on his sprawling Web site, Trummel expands:

"In most cases, the targets of satire initiate it by their own behavior and statements. Satirists patiently wait for tyrants to behave with avarice and to cover up their unlawful activity then expose their deeds. The satirist recognizes and accepts that the truth, by its very nature, often inflames the sensibilities of others. It especially inflames those people who identify with the negative aspects of exposure."

Elena Luisa Garella, a prominent First Amendment lawyer in Washington state who has represented Trummel since early in the case, concedes that much of Trummel's writing on Council House is "outrageous." His enemies are ridiculed mercilessly, and in intensely personal terms, for their intellectual shortcomings, moral failings and sexual choices, as he judges them. The passages reprinted throughout this article are not typical of the tone of They are, in fact, chosen for their restraint.

Here comes the judge
A, a professional actor, poses as a social worker and building manager. He uses a Kafkaesque management style. Sated by uninformed reviews by his employers, he believes his show will run for ever. He constantly reinvents himself to give the impression of a self-possessed character projecting dignity, morality, and courage. One may classify him by facial expression and clothing but never know the devious and ruthless plans in his head. Any difference between him and his thespian persona emerges by accident and when exposed, hysteria.
— Paul Trummel, "The Art of Thespian Lying"

Regardless of its literary provenance, it is difficult to square Trummel's characterization of "A" with Stephen Mitchell in person. A tall, slender former stage actor with a gentle demeanor, Mitchell says softly that nothing Trummel describes ever happened. He says Trummel is "guilty of everything he accuses others of."

He would berate residents with demands that they come to his apartment for interviews, threatening to "write that you were manipulated by Mitchell" if they declined, Mitchell contends. At one point, Mitchell says, Trummel's diatribes and belligerence drove him to sleep with a baseball bat for fear of his life, adding, "I can't walk down the street and hear an English accent without turning around."

Trummel and Garella, his attorney, deny all of that.

In March 2001, Trummel sought but failed to win an anti-harassment order from King County Superior Court Judge James A. Doerty to prevent retaliation by Mitchell, court records show.

The next month, at Doerty's express invitation to file a counter-petition, Mitchell had better luck. Doerty — quoting extensively from more than three dozen affidavits from Council House residents accusing Trummel of physical intimidation, snooping and creating fear — issued an anti-harassment order barring Trummel from coming within 500 feet of the building, which is on the edge of a bustling Seattle neighborhood called Capitol Hill.

Because the order effectively barred Trummel from his own home, he had to move. Until it was modified, the order made it impossible for Trummel to visit his doctor, whose office was inside the zone.

When Trummel appealed, the Washington Court of Appeals dismissed his case, ruling that the $250 filing fee was not paid in time.

Thereafter came a series of hearings, at least 10 of them, in Superior Court. In October 2001, Doerty extended his order to bar Trummel from publishing "any personal identifying information, including, but not limited to the name, address, phone number, Social Security number, or photograph of any current, former, or future staff member, resident, board member, or agent, including attorneys, of Council House."

That order grew out of Trummel's decision to post the names, home addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of 34 officers, board members, past presidents, administrators and staff members of Council House. Doerty ordered Trummel to remove the material as a violation of their privacy.

Trummel — who notes that he consciously refrained from publishing Social Security numbers — worked around the order by referring to people with pseudonyms. Mitchell, who is well over 6 feet, became "The Tall Pygmy," while Doerty himself became "Judge Jiminy." Most other names were (and continue to be) rendered without some or all of their vowels — "Mtchll," for example, or "Rmsbrg," a reference to a staff member.

When Trummel further tried to evade the order by moving his Web site to a European Internet service provider, in the belief that it was outside Doerty's jurisdiction, the judge found him in contempt of court and, in February 2002, ordered him to jail. There he spent 111 days, most of it in maximum security and some of it in solitary confinement after it was alleged that he continued to contact Council House residents through the jailhouse telephone. Trummel denies the accusation.

The press steps in
Traditionally, ideologues have led the masses to the abyss and self-interested group leaders have marched them rapidly forward. Nothing has changed. In a mindless society, the individual speaks his mind at his peril while some journalists play both ends against the middle to keep their jobs.
— Paul Trummel, "Freedom of Conscience"

"There is no legitimate reason for this information to be published by Mr. Trummel," Doerty wrote in June 2002, after Trummel had removed the restricted material and was released. Deriding Trummel as "a mean old man who becomes angry and vicious when he doesn't get his own way," Doerty dismissed his claim to be a journalist as "a self-serving fantasy."

That got the attention of several journalism organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the International Writers Union. They accused Doerty of running roughshod over the First Amendment and noted with particular disdain that the judge appeared to reserve for himself the prerogative of deciding who was and who was not a journalist.

"It is my finding specifically that his claim to be a journalist is a bogus claim insofar as he has no useful journalistic purpose," Doerty wrote when he first jailed Trummel. "He is not employed by anyone but himself. There is no publisher involved. There is merely the misguided use of an obviously well-developed talent."

The effect of that passage, if it were accepted into law, would mean that no one could call himself a journalist unless he drew a paycheck from a publisher, Trummel and the journalism groups argue. It would effectively strip all freelance writers of their constitutional rights, they say.

The ruling "seems to say that because it does not consider Mr. Trummel to be a journalist he is not entitled to protection under the First Amendment," Claire Safran, chairwoman of the First Amendment Committee of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, said in a statement last month. "But the amendment protects free speech for all people, regardless of whether the words are committed to paper."

The road ahead
Since Doerty issued the new order, the administrator and several residents have started a hate campaign and published a stream of libel. They have given interviews to gullible journalists who have published their propaganda without fact-checking it. Why should journalists with few ethics bother to verify or validate their material? They know that the poseur, Judge James A. Doerty, will endorse anything they write to get more ink for himself.
— Paul Trummel, "Court-Facilitated Terror"

In September of last year, the Washington Supreme Court ordered the appeals court to reinstate Trummel's appeal. Oral arguments were heard this month in Seattle. Spectators filled all available seats and spilled over into the hallway, most of them Council House residents, including some who continue to support Trummel. A ruling is not expected for a few months.

Trummel says it would not be proper vindication if, as many lawyers and other experts expect, he wins back only his right to publish whatever he wishes. The anti-harassment order is a tougher obstacle, and he and his legal team vow to fight it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

"I see the First Amendment issues as being very, very serious, and I see the misapplication of the anti-harassment process itself as being at least secondarily serious and something that really concerns me," says Garella, his attorney.

"I want an appellate-court ruling that advises judges on what are appropriate considerations and what are not appropriate considerations and what are appropriate restrictions and what are not appropriate restrictions."

Blocking his access to the people and institutions he is writing about, Trummel says, is itself a fundamental breach of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press. He further asserts that, if taken literally, the order would bar him from talking with any other person anywhere, ever, about Council House, no matter how innocuous the discussion, because he cannot predict who might eventually become a resident or employee.

"I consider myself a political prisoner," says Trummel, who says he has refused to seek U.S. citizenship after three decades as a legal resident. He finds the "insulation" of the U.S. government distasteful and says he does not agree with its political structure.

He says he continues to investigate Council House while taking pains not to violate Doerty's orders. He speaks only by telephone with residents and other sources who call him, unsolicited, to fill him in on a "pattern of behavior at Council House [that] is of a pattern with what went on at Dachau," he says.

"Senior citizens with cell phones — don't take them on," he says with a chuckle.

Losing the publication claim would not bother Stephen Mitchell as long as Paul Trummel is out of his life, and the lives of his residents. The fight has cost his facility about $50,000 in legal fees, which he says has to come "out of the pockets of low-income seniors." He had no choice, he says — "because of the nature of the victims, Council House has to protect them."

"What would you do if this was being done to your grandmother?" Mitchell asks. "It's like a bully in the schoolyard."

Mitchell particularly warns outsiders not to be misled by Trummel's professorial demeanor, saying that because "he presents so well, people are sucked into it."

The atmosphere at Council House without the looming specter of Trummel and his notebook is "night and day," Mitchell says: "It's an empowered community. Our residents are happy now. They don't have to live in fear anymore."

Since Trummel has been gone, Mitchell says, Council House has been able to raise more then $200,000 in contributions for operating expenses simply because mediating Trummel's many disputes no longer takes up so much of his time.

"Not bad for the Nazi dictator," he says.

Still, Mitchell is resigned to letting Trummel write whatever he wants, if need be. Should the appeals court rescind the publication ban but leave the anti-harassment order in place, Mitchell says, Council House will not object.

"Stress can kill this population," Mitchell says of his residents. "I just want him to leave us alone."