Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Advocacy Groups Challenge Arizona Internet Communications Ban

On July 18, 2002, the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty(CCADP), Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty(CUADP) and Stop Prisoner Rape(SPR), filed a federal law suit against Terry L. Stewart Director of the Arizona Department Of Corrections(ADOC) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The suit was filed to challenge the constitutionality of four Arizona statutes: Ariz.Rev.Stat. § 31-235(c)(d), §31-242(a)(b), § 411604(a)(9), and § 13-3001(3)(12). The statutes prohibit and criminalize prisoners communicating with, or having personal, legal or any other type of information posted on the Internet, by advocacy groups or any other legal or non-legal web sites. See: "Arizona Prisoners Can't Access Internet, and Net Accesses Them" in the February 2001 issue of PLN .

The CCADP, CUADP and SPR, post information on their sites about prisoners' criminal cases, including newspaper articles and links to other legal documents, poetry, art, requests for correspondents and appeals for legal assistance. The plaintiffs claim in their suit that the purpose of the statutes is to suppress the flow of information from prisoners to the outside world and to prevent the advocacy of plaintiffs and any other advocacy or anti death penalty/prisoner rights organizations.

In April, 2002, several Arizona prisoners began receiving notices from the prison administrators stating that they were in violation of Arizona statutes regarding Internet access. The notices stated that if they wanted to avoid criminal charges and/or disciplinary sanctions by the ADOC, they would have to have their names and information removed from whatever web site they had information on within 3 weeks.

In their complaint the plaintiffs argue that organizations such as Pro-Death and the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, advocate harsher punishment of prisoners and post information on several Arizona prisoners, and Stewart has never made an attempt to have information about Arizona prisoners removed from those sites. The plaintiffs allege that this type of viewpoint discrimination and the statutes themselves violate their First amendment right to free speech and Fourteenth amendment right to due process. The plaintiffs claim the statutes at issue have interfered with their advocacy on behalf of Arizona prisoners as well as their ability to communicate with Arizona prisoners. In May and June, 2002, several Arizona prisoners contacted the plaintiffs and requested that their news and information be removed from plaintiff's websites due to the threat of punishment by ADOC officials. The plaintiff's claim that a mere desire to suppress speech because it is unpopular is not a legitimate governmental goal.

David Fathi, of the ACLU National Prison Project commented, "It's really a matter of both infringing on both the First amendment rights of prisoners and the groups. This isn't about security; it's about suppressing unpopular speech. Basically some people in Arizona didn't like the fact that prisoners were able to express themselves on the Internet, so they're trying to shut them up." Eleanor Eisenberg, director of the Arizona ACLU stated, "It is extraordinary that Arizona prison officials believe they can tell international groups opposed to the death penalty what they can and cannot say online about prisoners in Arizona. It is equally absurd that this law punishes prisoners even when they are not responsible for the posting of information about them on these outside websites."

Gary Phelps, the chief of staff of the ADOC, said the laws in question originated when Jennifer Johnson Lopez learned that her father's convicted killer, Beau Greene, was advertising for pen pals on the Internet. Lopez felt her privacy had been violated and wanted a law to prevent prisoners from "telling what may be distorted versions of their stories." Internet pen pal sites seem to be the main target of the law. Phelps also claims that there is a need to protect "vulnerable" women from "manipulative inmates." Questioned about this patronizing and sexist attitude, Phelps responded to Wired News : "It's a public safety measure to protect people from their own stupidity, like the laws against drinking and driving. It's the government's duty to protect people from the con artists of the world," Phelps said.

CCADP co-founder Tracie LaMourie responded that some prisoners are sentenced to death; "they're not sentenced to silence." She noted that interested citizens can search news or prison websites for details of a prisoner's criminal conviction if they are interested. Her goal is to allow death row prisoners to speak freely, not to fact check accounts for accuracy. "We're giving prisoners a voice. Americans should know who they're killing," she said.

The plaintiffs are represented by David Fathi of the ACLU NPP, Ann Beeson of the ACLU Technology and Liberty program, and Arizona ACLU attorneys Alice Bendheim and Pamela Sutherland. The plaintiffs are seeking injunctive and declaratory relief holding the statutes are unconstitutional and enjoining their enforcement. They are also seeking their attorney fees and costs. PLN will report the outcome of the case. See: Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty v. Stewart , USDC D AZ, Case No. CIV02-1344PHX EHC. Individual prisons in California and the New York prison system have administrative policies which prohibit prisoners from sending or receiving information and materials from the Internet or to website providers. The ACLU of No. California successfiully challenged the California policy in federal court in San Francisco.

Additional Sources: Wired News , ABCNEWS.Com

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Canadian Coal. Against the DP v. Stewart

The complaint and settlement in this case are in the brief bank.