JDI IN THE NEWS - 2002

Donna Higgins, Court Halts Enforcement of Law Banning Inmate Info on the Web, Computer and Online Industry Legislative Review, 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 Internet.

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 rights.

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.