Ariz. Prisoners Denied Free Speech

Arizona prisoners hope they do not appear on various advocacy groups' Web sites, or else they may be charged with a crime or have more time added to their sentences.

This has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to file a federal lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections, alleging that the state law barring prisoners from communicating with the Web sites of advocacy groups violates the First Amendment rights of both the inmates and the organizations that want to tell their story. The law, adopted by Arizona in 2000, prohibits inmates from communicating with Internet service providers, remote computer services and Web sites, either directly or through other parties.

"It's really a matter of both infringing on both the First Amendment rights of the prisoners and the groups," said David Fathi of the ACLU National Prison Project. "The Corrections Department has the right to prevent prisoners from communicating with groups who want to put these prisoners on their sites. Organizations have been told that any mail sent to prisoners will be confiscated. So the First Amendment rights of both have been heavily burdened."

However, Arizona prison officials say the issues surrounding the law involve more than freedom of speech. The law is intended to ensure both prison security and the rights of victims' families who feel violated by prisoners' presence on Web sites.

Advocating Free Speech — For Everyone

Under the law, Arizona inmates and their stories are not allowed to appear on sites outside the one maintained by the Department of Corrections. And if officials find stories about inmates posted on outside sites, they can threaten the prisoners with punishment, even if they never initiated contacted with their advocates.

"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," said Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the ACLU of 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 Web sites."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three groups — Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Stop Prisoner Rape. Before the prisoner-internet law was adopted, Arizona inmates were not allowed to have direct computer access to the outside world.

Plaintiff lawyers said the goal of the lawsuit is not give direct computer access to prisoners and opportunities to conduct or plan crimes in cyberspace. They are trying to preserve the right to freedom of expression of both inmates and the prisoner rights groups.

"We're not talking about giving prisoners access to computers with a modem or anything like that. We're talking about their communicating with groups through letters, phone calls, or they're telling other parties to tell their story on the Web," said Fathi. "In the state's legislative history, it has not been an issue of prison security or maintaining prison security. There have been people out there who have been annoyed that prisoners have been able to get information about them out there, saying things like, "I need a lawyer' or 'I'm innocent' or even things such as 'I'm lonely. I need someone to talk to.' This is really about nothing more than the suppression of free speech."

Preserving Victims’ Rights and Prison Security

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