ACLU Challenges Arizona Law That Censors Anti-Death Penalty Web Sites

Affiliate: ACLU of Arizona
September 18, 2003 12:00 am

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PHOENIX-Acting on behalf of anti-death penalty and other advocacy groups, the American Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit in Arizona federal district court seeking to invalidate a state law that bans all information about Arizona prisoners from the global Internet.

“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 websites,” she added.

The lawsuit, Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty v. Terry L. Stewart, is brought on behalf of three prisoners’ rights groups against the Arizona Department of Corrections which is responsible for enforcing this law.

The broadly worded legislation (Arizona House Bill 2376) also bars prisoners from corresponding with a “communication service provider” or “remote computing service” and disciplines prisoners if any person outside prison walls accesses 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. Recent department notices demand that prisoners have their names and case information removed from advocacy websites or face prison discipline and possible criminal prosecution.

“Ironically, prisoners would be in violation of the statute simply by communicating with a service provider or website to have their information removed,” Eisenberg noted.

The ACLU’s complaint alleges that the legislation in question has the effect of suppressing the flow of information about prisoners to the outside world and stifles the advocacy efforts of the ACLU’s clients and other anti-death penalty and prisoner rights organizations.

While the state’s department of corrections maintains its own website offering prisoner information, the ACLU complaint charges that Arizona is gagging critics who challenge the state’s version of the facts about prisoners, including evidence that may establish innocence.

There has also been no evidence to suggest that the department of corrections has made any effort to remove Arizona prisoners’ information posted on the websites of pro-death penalty groups and organizations that advocate harsher punishment of prisoners.

“Prisoners forfeit many rights when they are incarcerated, but they do not forfeit their freedom of speech,” said David C. Fathi, staff counsel with the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “These basic rights may be limited only to the extent necessary to maintain prison security, and that is clearly not the issue here.”

Fathi of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, Ann Beeson of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program and Alice Bendheim and Pamela K. Sutherland of the ACLU of Arizona are all serving as co-counsel in this case.

The ACLU legal complaint is online here.

The ACLU’s letter to the Arizona Department of Corrections is online here.

ACLU client websites:

Stop Prisoner Rape:

Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty:

The Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty:

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