Donna Higgins, Court Halts Enforcement of Law Banning Inmate Info
on the Web, Computer and Online Industry Legislative
December 31, 2002.
Plaintiffs challenging an Arizona law that
bans information about Arizona prisoners from appearing on the Internet
are likely to win their case, a federal judge has ruled. The judge
imposed a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law pending a
trial on the merits. Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty et al.
v. Stewart, No. CIV 02-1344, (D. Ariz. Dec. 16, 2002). See Computer &
Online Industry LR, Aug. 13, 2002, P. 3.
The target of the lawsuit is Arizona HB 2376,
signed into law by the governor in 2000. The law prohibits prison inmates
from accessing any "communications service provider," including Internet
sites, and also bans third parties from accessing Internet sites on
inmates' behalf. Inmates can lose privileges, good-behavior credits or
face other punishments for violations of HB 2376.
“The legislative history of HB 2376 reveals
that it was enacted not in response to concerns for prison order or
security, but because some persons were annoyed by Web sites that
maintained a prisoner's innocence, challenged the fairness of the
prisoner's trial or solicited legal and political support for the
prisoner," the complaint states. “A bare desire to suppress such speech
because it is unpopular is not a legitimate governmental objective. … The
content of plaintiffs' Web sites is political speech, entitled to the
highest protection under the Constitution of the United States."
According to the complaint, the Arizona
Department of Corrections maintains a Web site with information about
prisoners, including the state's version of the facts surrounding the
prisoners' convictions. But HB 2376 prevents others from posting prisoner
information, including different versions of the events described on the
DOC's site, the complaint states.
The complaint says that several Arizona
inmates, fearful of punishment under HB 2376, have contacted the
plaintiffs to request that information about them be removed from the
The plaintiffs are the Canadian Coalition
Against the Death Penalty, Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death
Penalty and Stop Prisoner Rape.
They moved for a preliminary injunction to
prevent the state from enforcing HB 2376 pending trial. U.S. District
Judge Earl H. Carroll said the plaintiffs are likely to prevail on their
claim that the law violates the First Amendment.
The plaintiffs have made a strong case that
the prison regulations at issue are not "rationally related to legitimate
penological objectives," the judge said. Prison officials argue the broad
restrictions are necessary to prevent prisoners from defrauding the public
and to prevent inappropriate contact between prisoners and victims,
children or other inmates.
However, Judge Carroll said the state's
prisons already have methods in place to achieve their objectives.
Prisoners are not permitted to access the Internet directly, and all
incoming mail is already subject to inspection for contraband, he said.
The defendants also argued that under the
Prison Litigation Reform Act, the court was required to make specific
findings before it could order relief at this stage of the case. However,
Judge Carroll said, the PLRA does not apply because the plaintiffs here
are not prisoners, and are seeking to vindicate their own First Amendment
The plaintiffs are represented by David
C. Fathi of the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington, D.C.; Ann
Beeson of the ACLU Technology & Liberty Program in New York; Alice L.
Bendheim of Phoenix; and Pamela K. Sutherland of the Arizona American
Civil Liberties Foundation in Phoenix.