Arizona tries to jail the internet, Index on Censorship, August 13, 2002.
Arizona state law bans prisoners in its jails from internet contact with
their friends and families - and now from campaign groups trying to defend
their rights. Three such groups have now recruited the American Civil
Liberties Union to challenge the bans on freedom of speech grounds.
Three prisoners' rights organisations are suing jail managers in the
western US state of Arizona over a new law that criminalises
communications with prisoners and punishes them if information about their
cases appear on websites run by their supporters.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is representing Stop Prisoner
Rape (SPR), the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty (CCADP) and
Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CUADP) in their
case against Terry L Stewart, Director of the Arizona Department of
They argue that his department's enforcement of Arizona's House Bill 2376
violates both their and their prisoner contacts' first amendment rights to
free speech and severely hampers their advocacy work on behalf of
SPR, the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty (CCADP) and Citizens
United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CUADP) seek to invalidate a
state law that seeks to ban all information from Arizona prisoners from
being posted on the internet.
"For many prisoners, we are the only source of information about surviving
sexual assault, and we rely on the internet," says Lara Stemple, executive
director of SPR.
SPR, a non-profit human rights organization dedicated to ending sexual
violence against men, women, and youth in all forms of detention, posts
survivor stories, comments, and excerpts from prisoners' letters on its
"Men and women who have been raped in prison are often too ashamed to
speak out," explains Stemple. "SPR's website gives survivors a chance to
connect with one another, and when you are isolated, ashamed, and afraid,
that connection can be a matter of life and death."
All three organisations maintain websites containing information about
prisoner rights, as well as information about specific inmates.
The SPR posts contributions from inmates written about their own personal
experiences of sexual abuse while incarcerated while the CUADP and CCADP
websites posting of personal case information from prisoners and appeals
for legal and political assistance.
The CUADP website held information from 45 prisoners in Arizona jails at
the time the suit was launched. SPR regularly sends fact sheets, survivor
stories, and referrals printed from its website to survivors who are still
"Arizona's attempts to restrict and censor the content of advocacy
organizations' own websites certainly violates the Constitution and
establishes a troubling precedent," says Ann Beeson, Litigation Director
of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program.
"Prisoners and the groups that choose to assist them retain the same vital
freedom of speech that all Americans do."
The bill reinforces restrictions on unmonitored inmate access to the
internet and aims to restrict correspondence between prisoners and
'communication service provider[s]' or 'remote computing service[s]',
though not communications with newspapers and magazines.
The law also imposes disciplinary action against inmates whose names or
personal information appear on the websites. Inmates may also be
disciplined if any person outside prison walls accesses a provider or
service website at a prisoner's request.
The July 18 order reads in part: "Except as authorized by the department
of corrections, an inmate shall not have access to the internet through
the use of a computer, computer system, network, communication service
provider or remote computing system. An inmate who violates this section
is guilty of a class 1 misdemeanour."
The penalties include removal of good behaviour points towards parole.
Prisoners whose names are spotted on the sites are issued with an order
demanding that they contact the site and have their names withdrawn.
In May and June of this year CUADP was contacted by two prisoners
requesting that information about them be removed from the website. CCADP
has similarly been contacted by at least four inmates.
"This ill-conceived law places prisoners in a Catch-22," said Eleanor
Eisenberg, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arizona. "The only way for
prisoners to stop information from being posted on the Internet is to
contact the very organizations the prisoners are now banned from
SPR, CCADP and CUADP are challenging the bill's 'chilling effect' on their
right to free speech and its effective censorship of their public concerns
about prisoner safety.
They also note that pro-death penalty organisations such as
ProDeathPenalty.com and organisations which seek harsher penalties for
prisoners such as the National Organisation of Parents of Murdered
Children also post information about inmates, their crimes and their
To date Stewart and his department have not asked prisoners named by these
pro-death penalty websites try to contact them to have their names
removed. It seems that inmates are only vulnerable to punishment when
their cause is taken up by organisations that try to argue their innocence
on their behalf.
In its letter to Stewart, the ACLU said it believed that the legislation
would be swiftly invalidated by the courts.
"There can be no doubt that the purpose and effect of this legislation is
to suppress the flow of information from prisoners to the outside world,
and to chill the advocacy of CCADP and other anti-death penalty and
prisoner rights organizations," the ACLU letter added.
"The Internet is a vital source of news and information for millions of
people in the United States and around the world," said David C. Fathi,
staff counsel with the ACLU's National Prison Project.
"The government may not ban information about prisoners from the Internet
any more than it could ban such information from newspapers or
When approached by Index on Censorship, Michael Arra, Media Relations
Administrator for the Arizona Department of Corrections told the magazine
that his office had no comment to make on this case "at this time".