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PLN Sues Washington DOC over Censorship of Nazi Guard Exposé

PLN Sues Washington DOC over Censorship of Nazi Guard Exposé

On August 27, 1999, Prison Legal News filed suit in federal court in Spokane, Washington, seeking a court injunction to ensure the delivery of the May, 1999, issue of PLN to its Washington prisoner readers. The May, 1999, issue of PLN had an investigative expose by Jennifer Vogel titled "White Guard, Black Guard: Racism in Washington Continues." The article documents the fact that the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) employs violent Nazis, members of the Ku Klux Klan and other assorted white supremacists who regularly taunt, abuse, harass and threaten with violence minority prisoners and staff members alike. [The complete article is available on PLN's web site at:, or send $5 for the complete issue to PLN.]

The May, 1999 issue of PLN was censored in all Washington state prisons on the orders of Eldon Vail, the deputy assistant director of the Washington DOC. The censorship affects about 100 Washington prisoners who subscribe to PLN. Various reasons given for the censorship include the orwellian claim that the article itself is "racist" for exposing racism within the DOC, that it advocates "racial inferiority" and is a "threat to legitimate penological objectives." Apparently keeping Nazis on the state payroll is considered an overriding governmental interest. Rather than stop employing white supremacists who threaten and harass their fellow employees and prisoners alike, Mr. Vail prefers to censor those publications discussing the problem. The Washington DOC never responded to a demand letter sent by PLN's counsel.

The lawsuit claims that the censorship violates PLN's free speech rights and those of plaintiffs Jennifer Vogel and the Seattle Weekly. The Seattle Weekly is an alternative publication in Seattle which also published Vogel's article and was censored in Washington prisons as a result. The plaintiffs are represented by attorney Frank Cuthbertson with the Tacoma law firm of Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell, Malanca, Peterson and Daheim.

The plaintiffs have filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction requiring delivery of the May, 1999, issue of PLN to its Washington prisoner subscribers pending the outcome of the suit. The suit seeks damages, injunctive and declaratory relief and attorney fees and costs. The case is assigned to judge William Fremming Nielsen.

In an interview with Seattle alternative paper The Stranger, Eldon Vail admitted that he allows white supremacist literature such as the White Aryan Resistance Newsletter to freely circulate in Washington prisons. WAR is a neo-Nazi group headed by Tom Metzger. It was recently found civilly liable for the beating murder of an Ethiopian immigrant in Portland, Oregon. The not so subtle message here is that publications such as PLN which are opposed to racism, are censored; those publications advocating violent, racist attacks, and which have a proven track record of such activity, are tacitly condoned and allowed to circulate in Washington prisons.

In essence the Washington DOC is shutting out messages opposing racism while encouraging those that promote white supremacy. The point of Vogel's article was that the DOC condones and effectively approves of racism given its lengthy record of inaction and tolerance towards its racist staff and employees.

Vail later told the Spokane Spokesman Review that he thought Vogel's article might incite violence against the guards named in the article. This is in contrast to the article reporting a lawsuit by black prison employees that threats and violence by white racist DOC employees met with no response from the DOC. Vail claimed the article contained some "inaccurate information." Vogel, and PLN, stand by the accuracy of the article. Vogel notes the DOC has never asked her to retract or correct anything in the article. "Everything I wrote was from public records," Vogel said.

Since its inception in 1990, PLN has fought extensive censorship battles with the Washington DOC. The first three issues of PLN were initially censored in all Washington prisons. PLN has faced censorship in Washington prisons based on our third class mailing status, on subscriptions not being paid for from prisoners trust accounts, etc. PLN has also faced a ban on communication between PLN's imprisoned editor (Paul Wright) and a co-editor on parole (Ed Mead).

PLN will report the outcome of the suit. See: Prison Legal News v. Washington DOC, USDC ED WA, Case No. CS-99-0231-WFN.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Washington DOC