Farewell, Joe Shea, Online News Pioneer and Defender of the First Amendment


The World Wide Web was shiny and new when Joe Shea launched The American Reporter in April 10, 1995.

It was the world’s first online daily newspaper, and that alone would secure Joe’s place in the history of the internet.

Joe left us on Oct. 19, 2016. His health was shaky for the last couple of years, and cancer finally took his life at the age of 69.

What he left behind was a legacy as an online pioneer and champion of freedom of expression, particularly when he challenged President Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno, and the US Justice Department to ensure that the First Amendment would be equally applied to a new medium.

In February 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which made it a crime, punishable by up to two years in jail and/or a $250,000 fine for anyone to engage in speech deemed “indecent” or “patently offensive” on computer networks if a minor was able to view it.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association were among the organizations that immediately challenged the CDA as an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech.

And right behind them was Joe.

His suit, Reno v. Shea, was filed in federal district court in New York in April 1996. It contended that the CDA would subject The American Reporter and other online news sites to constraints that print publications did not face, and that these restrictions violated the First Amendment’s assurance of a free press.

The lower federal courts soon struck down the CDA, ruling that it constituted censorship of the internet, and was unconstitutional. While Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union was the lawsuit that ultimately was ruled upon by the US Supreme Court in 1997, Reno v. Shea was also affirmed by the Supreme Court., although no written opinion was published.

Joe was fearless enough to stand up to the would-be censors of a new medium. Because of his challenge, the precedent was set — the internet was covered by the same First Amendment protections as every other form of public communication.

He always considered Reno v. Shea to be his greatest achievement. It was a big reason why I started writing for Joe and The American Reporter in 1996. I thought Joe was on the side of the angels, and I wanted to be on his team.

Those first few years of the AR were exciting. From a crumbling bungalow on Ivar Street in Hollywood, Calif., Joe was managing to put out a credible online newspaper with almost no resources. He established the AR as kind of a cooperative. Each story carried by the paper earned equity for the correspondent in profits from advertising and subscriptions, and income when their stories sold to other newspapers. It was one of the few news outlets where the journalists, themselves, owned the organization.

I never got rich writing for the AR. Most of the time, what little money my work generated for the paper went to Joe to keep the paper going. For me, the reward was having an outlet for my work and chance to write what I wanted without corporate interference.

At the time the AR began, a lot of money was getting thrown around at people creating web sites. Joe’s neighbor in Hollywood, Matt Drudge, started out just as humbly as Joe did, but the Drudge Report became a media sensation, while the AR quietly went its own way.

Joe liked his independence and was never beholden to anyone. As a result, he never saw any of those dot.com boom riches. But the AR survived when most of its peers from the 1995-96 era flamed out. It survived thanks to Joe’s passion.

But passion and fearlessness came easily to Joe. His first published story came after he covered the riots that broke out in Harlem the night Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on April 4, 1968. His eyewitness account, written in longhand, was published in The Village Voice. He soon was covering conflicts in Northern Ireland, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines as a freelancer for the Voice.

He later wrote for Esquire, and one of his pieces, on Patrick Delaney, President Gerald Ford’s nominee to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1976, led to withdrawal of the nomination based on reported stock fraud and inconsistencies in Delaney’s resume. He left New York for Los Angeles in the late 1970s. He was a founding contributor to LA Weekly and started the Beverly Hills GoldBook, an international guide to the great cities of the world that he edited for 21 years.

Joe took several detours from journalism over the years. He worked in the New York State Assembly in the mid 1970s as communications manager for nine New York City lawmakers. He was an executive speech writer and consultant for Lockheed Corporation, and later wrote a collection of Shakespearean sonnets, A Native Music, that was published in 1989. He also ran for mayor of Los Angeles in 2001. He moved to Bradenton, Fla., in 2003, and ran the AR from there.

Community service was as much a passion as journalism. He was president of the Ivar Hill Community Association in Hollywood for 13 years. During Joe’s tenure, the nonprofit provided food and holiday gifts for more than 7,000 low-income children. He also led the Ivar Hawks Neighborhood Watch, which focused on reducing violent crime in Hollywood, and he was recognized by both the Los Angeles Police Department and national groups for his efforts.

After he moved to Florida in 2003, he kept the AR going through the dark days of George W. Bush and the brighter days of Barack Obama. He did not live to see Donald Trump claim the White House — a blessing for him but not for the rest of us.

Our relationship over the past two decades was an email one, with the occasional phone call. But even at a distance, his big heart came through. The sacrifices Joe made to keep the AR while he lived in near poverty were considerable, and that was because how deeply he believed in a free press.

I didn’t learn of his death until weeks after it happened. I’ll admit that I wasn’t diligent about checking the AR site, but then the editor of this newspaper asked if Joe was okay. That’s when I saw the site hadn’t been updated since September. I knew he was battling cancer, but he dodged so many bullets when it came to his health, I figured he’d dodge this one.

Then I found his obituary online, and knew I had failed him as a colleague and friend for not staying in touch during the last months of his life.

Joe, I hope this makes up for it.

I hope you get the proper honors you deserve for being a pioneer in online journalism.

And his memory will be a blessing to all of us who wrote for him at The American Reporter.

Randolph T. Holhut, news editor at The Commons (www.commonsnews.org), a nonprofit community newspaper in Brattleboro, Vt., has been an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 35 years and wrote for The American Reporter for 20 years. He edited The George Seldes Reader (Barricade Books). Email randyholhut@yahoo.com.

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2017


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