PHOENIX — The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Arizona today sent a letter to the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (ADCRR) challenging its decision to withhold selected issues of The Nation magazine from incarcerated subscribers at least five times in the past 18 months on the basis that the issues promoted racial superiority or contained sexual content, in violation of the First Amendment.
“The ban on these issues of The Nation is yet another example of prisons routinely restricting materials that incarcerated people can access, by way of unconstitutional, arbitrary rules,” said Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “ADCRR’s actions violate not only the First Amendment rights of incarcerated people, but also the First Amendment rights of the publisher and writers in the magazine. The Nation, or any other publication, may not be banned simply because it describes acts of current or historic racism — reporting on racism is not promoting racism.”
The ACLU examined the withheld issues of The Nation and found no content promoting acts of violence, racism, degradation, or the superiority of one race over another. One prohibited issue had a cover story entitled “Black Immigrants Matter.” Another issue that was banned, because it supposedly contained sexual content, had a photo of a fully-dressed 93-year-old drag queen in the magazine and a cartoon of two fully-dressed people kissing each other. The ADCRR regulation banning sexual content recently was held to be unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in another censorship case against the department.
“True to its Orwellian name, ADCRR’s Office of Publication Review (OPR) has given vague explanations lacking any specific citation of allegedly offending material to justify withholding our magazine from incarcerated subscribers,” explains D.D. Guttenplan, editor of The Nation. “But as Malcolm X says in his Autobiography, reading in prison ‘changed forever the course of my life’ — as it has for countless other incarcerated people. So when the notices kept coming, we decided to do something about it.”
“This is not the first time the ACLU has called ADCRR to account for its arbitrary censorship policies,” said Emerson Sykes, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “In 2019, the ACLU successfully called on Arizona prison officials to allow Chokehold, Paul Butler’s acclaimed nonfiction book on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. In 2021, the ACLU filed an amicus brief in support of a Black Muslim man who sued ADCRR for denying him access to religious texts, and to popular rap and R&B music such as Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd. In January 2022, the Ninth Circuit ruled against ADCRR in the prisoner’s favor.”
In its letter, the ACLU asks ADCRR to review each facility’s policy and practice to ensure respect for the First Amendment rights of incarcerated Arizonans, as well as the constitutional rights of publishers. Specifically, the ACLU is asking ADCRR to provide uncensored issues of The Nation to the intended recipients, to notify mailroom staff that they cannot invoke the unconstitutional and vague “sexual content” regulation, and to refrain in the future from banning materials reporting acts of current or historic racism.
The full ACLU letter and the banned issues are at: