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Prison Legal News Files Censorship Suit Against Florida DOC

On November 17, 2011 the ACLU of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute filed a lawsuit on behalf of Prison Legal News in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Named as defendants in the suit are Florida Dept. of Corrections (FDOC) Secretary Kenneth S. Tucker and FDOC wardens at the Everglades, Dade and Homestead Correctional Institutions.

According to the complaint, PLN accuses the FDOC of violating its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments by refusing to deliver its monthly publication and books to FDOC prisoners system-wide.

“When the government blocks information based on the content of that information, that’s censorship,” said Randall Marshall, Legal Director for the ACLU of Florida. “These publications provide inmates with vital information about their legal rights and individuals in FDOC custody have a right to access these publications.”

Although PLN’s articles and editorial content do not violate FDOC policies or regulations, PLN is being censored by Florida prison officials purportedly due to its advertisements – such as ads for pen-pal services and alternative prison phone services.

“The FDOC is imposing a blanket ban on all of PLN’s publications, including our self-help books for prisoners, because they don’t like some of our advertisers,” said PLN editor Paul Wright. “We believe that is entirely pretextual and an unjustified, exaggerated response that is being used to uphold unconstitutional censorship in violation of the First Amendment.”

“We’re a national news publication,” added PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann. “We can’t tailor our ad content to one particular state. Florida’s not banning Time or Newsweek because they have advertisers for cigarettes or cars, though prisoners aren’t allowed to have those either.”

The complaint asks the district court to find that the FDOC is censoring PLN’s reading materials and failing to provide due process in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and also requests injunctive relief, attorney fees and costs.

“This illegal conduct by the FDOC is precisely the type of activity the First Amendment was meant to protect. It is why our country was founded in the first place, and the reason free speech and freedom of the press is in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights,” noted Randall Berg, lead counsel and President of the Florida Justice Institute.

PLN sued the FDOC in 2004 over similar censorship issues, and the FDOC changed its mail policy in 2005 to allow PLN to be distributed to Florida state prisoners. The district court dismissed the suit as being moot; the 11th Circuit affirmed, noting that the FDOC had “presented sufficient evidence to show that it has ‘no intent to ban PLN based solely on the advertising content at issue in this case’ in the future.” [See: PLN, May 2011, p.10]. However, in 2009 the FDOC changed its mail policy again and began censoring PLN’s publications, even though PLN’s ad content had not changed.

“This is about as clear a case of censorship as there can be,” stated ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon. “Government can’t censor material just because it doesn’t like what’s being published in the material – in this case, advertisements for pen-pal services. Just because our client provides legal information for people who are incarcerated doesn’t mean they forfeit their constitutional rights. The Department of Corrections doesn’t have to like that fact, but they are obligated to respect it.” See: Prison Legal News v. Mayo, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 1:11-cv-24145-PAS.

Additional source: Miami New Times

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Mayo