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ACLU and PLN Challenge Washington DOC Censorship

In its 1995 session the Washington state legislature considered HB 1054, which would have censored a wide variety of publications sent to prisoners based on their "sexual" or "violent" content. HB 1054 was not passed but the DOC got the message and "reinterpreted'' its 1992 mail censorship policy, DOC policy 450.100, and commenced the total censorship of all publications deemed to be "sexually explicit," ranging from Playboy and Penthouse to local weekly newspapers such as The Stranger and Seattle Gay News. Many times the claimed basis for the censorship was ads, cartoons or written text in the publications. MIM Notes, bi weekly newsletter of the Maoist Internationalist Movement was also singled out for total censorship, because each issue has a statement saying MIM advocates the building of public opinion for the seizure of power through armed struggle. Several Washington prisons also refused to deliver publications from non profits such as PLN because they were mailed at third and fourth class mail rates, in others subscriptions were banned unless a prisoner purchased the subscription from his prison trust account.

On August 7, 1997, the ACLU of Washington filed suit in U.S. district court in Tacoma challenging numerous aspects of the DOC's censorship scheme. Three non profit publisher plaintiffs, the Humanists of Washington (HOW), the National Prison Project (which publishes the NPP Journal), and Rollin Wright (PLN's publisher), challenge the DOC's ban on publications mailed via third and fourth class mail as it violates their first amendment rights. The eight prisoner plaintiffs, Billy Blankenship, Keith Closson, Mark Cook, William Harris, Jerry Hawkins, Michael Peterson, Randy Tollefson and PLN editor Paul Wright, also challenge the bulk mail ban. All the plaintiffs claim that the ban on third and fourth class mail with no notice or opportunity to appeal being given to the plaintiffs also violates their fourteenth amendment right to due process.

The defendants in the action are Joseph Lehman, secretary of corrections; Tom Rolfs, former director of the division of prisons; Eldon Vail, assistant director and prison superintendents Tana Wood (Washington State Penitentiary); Kenneth Ducharme (Washington State Reformatory); Kay Walter (Airway Heights Corrections Center); Robert Wright (Clallam Bay Correction Center) and Phil Stanley (Washington Correction Center), respectively.

Hawkins, a WSP prisoner whose parents bought him a subscription to USA Today, claims violation of his right to free speech when prison officials censored his subscription because it was not bought from his prison trust account. Under RCW 72.09.480 thirty five percent of all funds sent to prisoners are seized by the state, which effectively imposes a 35% surcharge on most trust fund account purchases, including subscriptions.

Cook and Wright, WSR prisoners, are longtime subscribers to MIM Notes and claim that the blanket ban violates their free speech rights.

Wright claims that the censorship of numerous publications to which he subscribes on the basis that they are "sexually explicit," but not obscene, violates his free speech rights.

Harris, a WSR prisoner, challenges the constitutionality of WAC 137-28- 260(728), a disciplinary rule under which prisoners face punishment and loss of good time credits if found to be in possession of "sexually explicit" material. Harris was infracted and punished under this rule for possessing a catalog, delivered to him by prison officials.

All of the above claims are based on the first amendment to the U.S. constitution. All plaintiffs claim that their due process rights are violated by DOC practices which require that administrative appeals to censorship decisions be made to Tom Rolfs, the DOP director who in most cases ordered the censorship in question in the first place; by refusing to allow the prisoner plaintiffs to inspect the censored publications in order to draft their appeals; and not being provided with notice or an opportunity to appeal the censorship of bulk mail.

Wright and Closson challenge the DOC censorship of court rulings, settlements and other law related materials sent to and from each other and prisoners at WCC and CBCC.

Tollefson and Blankenship are PLN subscribers at AHCC. After prison officials refused to deliver PLN's sent to them via third class mail, PLN's publisher sent them replacement copies via first class mail. These issues were then stolen by AHCC mailroom employees and presented as evidence in another court action challenging the bulk mail censorship of PLN. Tollefson and Blankenship request an order of replevin requiring the delivery of their seized issues of PLN.

The plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment that the censorship in question violates the first and fourteenth amendments to the U.S. constitution. The plaintiffs also seek extensive injunctive relief requiring delivery of the censored publications and enjoining of the challenged rules and practices. The plaintiffs are represented by ACLU cooperating attorneys Michael Gendler and Joseph Bringman. The case is assigned to judge Burgess. PLN will report developments in the case as they occur. See: Humanists of Washington v. Lehman, Case No. C97-5499FDB.

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Related legal case

Humanists of Washington v. Lehman

The complaint is in the briefbank.