Arizona Judge Strikes Down Law that Censored Anti-Death Penalty Web Sites

May 15, 2003 12:00 am

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PHOENIX — The American Civil Liberties Union today welcomed a federal judge’s ruling permanently striking down a state law that punishes prisoners who post information about themselves on the Internet and denies organizations the right to post information about prisoners on their own web sites.

“We are delighted and encouraged by the judge’s order to protect the First Amendment rights of prisoners and their advocates,” said David C. Fathi, staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project and lead counsel in the case.

The ACLU’s lawsuit, Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty v. Charles L. Ryan, was filed on behalf of anti-death penalty and prisoner advocacy organizations in July 2002. The lawsuit challenged broadly worded legislation that also barred prisoners from corresponding with a “communication service provider” or “remote computing service” and disciplined prisoners if any person outside of prison contacted one of these agencies at a prisoner’s request.

In striking down the censorship law, the court said that it was unconstitutional and “not rationally related to legitimate penological objectives.” Today’s decision makes permanent a preliminary order issued last December that halted enforcement of the law.

The Arizona Department of Corrections imposed disciplinary sanctions on at least five prisoners found to be in violation of the law, according to the ACLU lawsuit. Penalties included disciplinary detention and loss of privileges like visits with family, phone calls and access to the commissary.

“The Internet provides an integral connection to the free exchange of ideas and information,” said Eleanor Eisenberg, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arizona. “As the court today found, attempts by the government to punish individuals in order to silence their unpopular voices are clearly illegal. Given the court’s decision, I am hopeful other states will choose to avoid Arizona’s mistakes.”

National ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson and Alice Bendheim and Pamela K. Sutherland of the ACLU of Arizona all served as co-counsel in the lawsuit.

The ACLU’s organizational clients are the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty; 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.

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