Arizona Fights to Keep Inmates Off the Web

A fight is brewing in the Arizona courts over the rights of inmates to use the web:
Critics say the Arizona measure violates the free-speech rights of inmates and their supporters and that it targets only prisoner-advocacy groups since the Corrections Department continues posting information about death-row inmates on its own website. David Fathi, an attorney for the ACLU's National Prison Project, calls the law unconstitutional. "It's not about prison security," he says. "It's not as if they're trying to prevent someone from sending instructions into prison for how to make a bomb, or plans on how to escape."

In December, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction and blocked enforcement of an Arizona law that prohibited all information about state prisoners from being published on the internet and banned communication between prisoners and organizations that might publish information about them on their web sites. In granting the injunction, the Court cited its fear that the law would cause irreparable harm to the First Amendment. As a result of the injunction, prisoners who violated the law couldn't be punished.

The ACLU brought the lawsuit last July seeking to invalidate the law, which "barred prisoners from corresponding with a 'communication service provider' or "remote computing service" and faced discipline if any person outside prison walls accessed a provider or service website at a prisoner’s request."

"The ACLU’s organizational clients are the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty, which has information about 45 Arizona prisoners on its website; Stop Prisoner Rape, a group that seeks to end sexual violence against individuals in detention; and Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a group that organizes public education campaigns with the intention of abolishing the death penalty. All of the ACLU’s clients maintain websites with prisoner information."

Since the Judge's decision was in the form of a temporary injunction, in the next few months the Court will make a final ruling on the constitutionality of the statute.

As we have opined many times before, inmates do not lose all constitutional rights when they pass through the prison doors. Among the rights they retain are those guaranteed under the First Amendment. Unless the state has a compelling interest in regulating a certain kind of activity and does so with a law that is narrowly tailored to apply only to the conduct it's trying to prohibit, the law won't pass muster.

"We see these (laws) as periodic attempts to silence prisoners and keep the eyes of the public away from what goes on in our nation's prisons and jails, where two million American citizens live," said the ACLU's David Fathi.

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