by Paul Wright
The United States bills itself as a country that values free speech. For over 30 years I have watched as prison and jail officials around the country censor Prison Legal News (PLN), Criminal Legal News (CLN),and some or all of the books which the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) also publishes or distributes. On September 6, we went to trial in federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida, challenging the ongoing censorship by the state Department of Corrections (DOC) of PLN, CLN, and one of our books since 2009. After two days of trial, we are waiting to see if U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks will find the ongoing ban of HRDC publications unconstitutional. Since 2003, DOC has used our advertising content as a pretext to censor PLN and our other publications. We have litigated the matter twice before, with limited success. Hopefully the third time is the charm. In the meantime, Florida prisoners have not had access to either PLN or CLN since 2009. A very impressive track record of censorship for a state whose governor purports to be concerned about his free speech rights, alas using his state power to crush the free speech rights of other Floridians.
On September 19, HRDC went to trial, again, in federal court in Fayetteville, Arkansas, challenging a publication ban by the Baxter County Jail. The jail has a postcard-only policy which acts as a total ban on all written materials, including all books, magazines, newspapers, and letters. For good measure the jail has no television and limits prisoners to 20 minutes of radio news per day. We went to trial in 2019 and the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas ruled against us. We appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit remanded for the district court to determine what, if any, alternatives HRDC has to give prisoners access to its publications. See: Human. Rights Def. Ctr. v. Baxter Cty. Ark., 999 F.3d 1160 (8th Cir. 2021). Sheriff John Montgomery states we can print the magazine you are reading now, all 72 pages, onto postcards and send however many dozen or hundred postcards into the jail that way. Seriously.
I, myself, along with our legal team are pictured in front of the federal courthouse in Fayetteville. As this issue of PLN goes to press, we are scheduled for a jury trial in El Dorado, Arkansas, challenging the Union County Jail’s ban on all publications as well.
No one stands up for the free speech rights of prisoners and the publishers who seek to communicate with them like HRDC does. No one else is coming to Arkansas, Wyoming, New Hampshire, Idaho, and the other places around the country where prison and jail officials are routinely violating the free speech rights of prisoners and publishers alike by banning publications. Not even the ACLU challenges these practices on a regular basis.
We have launched our annual fundraiser and when people ask why HRDC needs your support, this is one of those reasons. We are the only organization that regularly stands up for the free speech rights of prisoners and publishers in the U.S. Doing so is not cheap. Bringing these cases against opponents who are willing and able to fight us to the last penny of tax payer money takes resources and stamina on our end. HRDC has been litigating the Florida DOC ban on PLN for almost two decades. The two Arkansas cases have been ongoing since 2017. None of these cases has an end in sight. And these are just three of the 51 cases HRDC is currently litigating!
If you can donate or encourage others to donate, please do so. No donation is too big or too small and every little bit helps. It takes time, energy, and money to fight and win these cases. We get a lot done with very limited resources, but we need your help and support to keep going. If you think free speech and an independent media are worth standing up for, this is your chance to do so.
This month’s issue of PLN covers the ongoing human rights abuse of solitary confinement, a topic HRDC has pushed hard to put on the national agenda for the past 32 years, an effort which is gaining some traction. Plus more updates on places like the Alabama prison system and Riker’s Island. Perhaps it is no mystery why government officials try so hard to keep people from reading PLN.
We recently sent PLN subscribers a free sample copy of our other magazine, Criminal Legal News. Readers interested in criminal law and procedure, policing and prosecutorial misconduct will want to subscribe to CLN as well. Please let others know about both CLN and PLN and encourage them to subscribe.
Enjoy this issue of PLN and please help support the Human Rights Defense Center by donating or encouraging others to do so.
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