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PLN Sues Florida DOC Over Censorship and Writer Punishment

On January 12, 2004, Prison Legal News filed suit in federal district court in Jacksonville, Florida, against James Crosby, Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections and Chester Lambdin, the Warden of the Charlotte Correctional Institution, Joseph Thompson, warden of the Florida State Prison in Starke and Paul Decker, warden of the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford. Since February 2003, the Florida DOC has banned issues of PLN by claiming each issue constitutes a threat to prison security based on the ads for discount telephone services that PLN carries. PLN has carried such ads since 1998 without incident. At no point has the Florida DOC notified PLN of the censorship.

After affected prisoner subscribers informed PLN of the censorship, PLN contacted Crosby's office noting that prisoners cannot contract for the discount phone services advertised in PLN, only people with utilities can do so. Crosby referred PLN's demand letter to his general counsel who upheld the censorship. Just prior to filing suit, the FL DOC changed its mind and delivered all the censored issues. Then, they changed their minds again and decided they would continue censoring PLN based on its ad content.

The Florida DOC receives over $18 million in kickbacks from MCI, the company which holds the prison phone monopoly in Florida. MCI is the perpetrator of the biggest corporate fraud in American history and is under criminal indictment in Oklahoma as well as being the subject of several criminal investigations and numerous civil lawsuits over its business practices. The ban on PLN appears aimed at protecting this monopoly.

For over a year the Florida DOC has also punished prisoners who receive payment for articles submitted to publications such as PLN. David Reutter, a Florida prisoner and PLN contributing writer was punished and infracted in 2002 for having received payment from PLN for his articles. [See his article in the December, 2003, issue for details on the Florida writer rule.] The Florida DOC claims that prisoners who receive payment for their writings are "running a business" under Florida Administrative Code § 33.602.207(1).

PLN's lawsuit claims that the blanket ban on PLN due to its advertising content, for a legal service, violates its rights under the First amendment right to free speech and free press. The lack of due process in the censorship denies PLN the right of due process of law guaranteed under the Fourteenth amendment. PLN claims that the practice of punishing writers who submit articles to PLN has a chilling effect and violates its right to free speech and free press as well as constituting a prior restraint on the press.

PLN seeks declaratory relief that the blanket censorship and denial of due process are unconstitutional and that F.A.C. § 33.602.207(1) is unconstitutional. PLN seeks preliminary and permanent injunctive relief enjoining the Florida DOC and its employees from banning PLN, not providing due process when publications are censored and prohibiting the punishment of prisoners who submit articles for publication and receive payment in return. PLN seeks an injunction requiring the Florida DOC to deliver all issues of PLN censored under the blanket ban. PLN also seeks its attorney fees and costs in bringing the action.

Michael Gendler and Melissa Arias of the Seattle law firm Gendler and Mann and Randall Berg and Peter Siegel of the Florida Justice Institute in Miami represent PLN in this action.

Mumia Abu Jamal, a PLN columnist unjustly imprisoned on Pennsylvania's death row, successfully challenged and struck down a similar "running a business" rule applied to prisoner writers. See: Abu Jamal v. Price, 154 F.3d 128 (3rd Cir. 1999). PLN has successfully litigated similar blanket bans on PLN in Oregon, Washington and Nevada.

The filing the lawsuit has received widespread media coverage throughout Florida beginning with an article in the Miami Herald. The news media has focused on the prison phone rate racket and the issues it raises rather than the free speech claims being contested in the lawsuit itself. PLN has used its litigation to further its public education mission as well as secure the First amendment rights of itself and other publishers as well as our prisoner readers. The Miami Herald later published an editorial against the MCI phone monopoly and kickbacks and Fox News aired a broadcast on the topic as well. PLN will report developments in the case as they occur.. See: Prison Legal News v. Crosby, USDC MD F<. Case No. 3:04-CIV-14-J-16 TEN.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Crosby