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Censorship challenged in CO DOC

Censorship Challenged in CO DOC

Eight publishers, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and seven Colorado prisoners have filed suit in Federal District Court challenging the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) Administrative Regulation (AR) 300-26 governing prisoner reading material. Over the past three years the prisoners, housed in various CDOC facilities, have had numerous magazines and books censored and declared contraband with little or no effective recourse.

The publishers and their censored publications include New Times, Inc. and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (Westword), Dark Night Press (Dark Night Field Notes), Clay Douglas (Free American), Larry Rice (Cry Justice Now), Doret Kollerer (North Coast Xpress), Maoist International Movement (MIM Notes), the Barrio Defense Committee (Voz Del Barrio Aztlan), and Christine Donner (Shut Them Down). Christine Donner is also the coordinator of the Prisoner's Rights Project of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center.

In addition to the eight publications of the plaintiff publishers, other censored publications identified in the complaint include 11 magazines: Rolling Stone, VIBE, Lowrider and Lowrider Arte, The Source, Blaze, Yo, Scenario, Aerosol Art, Voz Fronteriza, and Drama Script Review. Six books were identified, including: The Hidden Faces of Eve, Like Water for Chocolate, Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis, A Nahuati-English Dictionary and Concordance to the Cantatas Mexicanos, The Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat (by the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center), and even Signed English: A Basic Guide (so a prisoner could learn to communicate with a hearing-impaired visitor). These are just examples of wide-spread censorship in flagrant disregard of prisoners' constitutional rights.

The plaintiff's §1983 constitutional law claims include three First Amendment challenges for (1) a vague and overbroad regulation, (2) improper censorship against the publishers, and (3) improper censorship against the prisoners. Two Fourteenth Amendment challenges include (1) Due Process for the publishers and (2) Due Process for the prisoners.

According to the Complaint, the CDOC has arbitrarily and unjustifiably censored this reading material on the basis of criteria that are overbroad, subjective, and vague. The publishers are not notified and the only due process afforded the prisoners is the inmate grievance system, if they are even notified of the censorship. The grievance system in this instance also deprives the prisoners of due process since the CDOC "does not require the censors to identify the articles or information which they believe threaten institutional security." Even the officials responding to the grievances do so without the benefit of the censored material which is usually destroyed or mailed out before the grievance process can run its course.

Commenting on some of this material, the Colorado ACLU Director, Mark Silverstein, says the "censorship of these music magazines reflects racist paranoia." He says that some CDOC censors "apparently see 'gang signs' in every photo in which the hands of an AfricanAmerican performer are visible." After reviewing the censored issues of Westword, Patricia Calhoun, editor of Westword, says "the issues that seemed to have the biggest trouble getting through to the prisoners were the issues in which we wrote about the prisons, problems at the prisons."

The complaint seeks a declaratory judgment of unconstitutionality, an injunction against the challenged practices, and attorney fees. See: New Times Inc. v. Suthers, USDC D CO. Case No. 00-WM-612.

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Related legal case

New Times Inc. v. Suthers