Inmate Magazine Loses First Amendment Case Against Florida Department Of Corrections

May 21, 2018
Originally published on May 22, 2018 3:53 pm

A Florida-based publisher of a magazine written by inmates lost a federal appeal of a freedom of speech case against the Florida Department of Corrections, which has barred the magazine from state correctional facilities.

Prison Legal News, based in Lake Worth, is distributed and read in state prisons in all 49 other states, leaving its home state as the only exception. The original case against the state was filed in 2004, and has since wound its way through the courts.

“It basically just drives home that the rights you have as a member of the news media depends on where you're located,” Paul Wright, the magazine’s publisher and editor, said about the decision. “For us it’s a huge issue; it’s why we’ve invested an enormous amount of time and money over the last 10 years against these censorship practices, and that’s why we haven’t given up yet.”

The appellate court decision, which came down last week, upheld a 2015 decision against the magazine by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker. In a 48-page opinion, Ed Carnes, chief judge of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote that the magazine represents a security threat and that the state is within its rights to bar the magazine from correctional facilities. He was joined by two judges in the decision.

“Prison officials have the duty to reduce the temptation for prisoners to commit more crimes and to curtail their access to the means of committing them,” Carnes wrote.

A court had previously ruled the lawsuit moot, as the state promised to distribute the magazine. But a 2009 Department of Corrections policy effectively banned all publications that contain certain kinds of advertisements aimed at inmates, including ads for three-way telephone calls, pen-pal services and ads aimed at teaching inmates how to conduct business while behind bars. That policy reopened the case.

“We believe it’s really about the editorial content,” Wright said. “What they’re choosing to single us out for on the censorship front is our advertising content. By choosing advertising, they know we have advertising in every issue, so that way they don’t have to find specific articles to claim are a security problem, they just get to target us based on the ads that are in every issue."

Much of the content contained in Prison Legal News is critical of the correctional system in general, including specific critiques of the Florida Department of Corrections.

Many media organizations, including the Florida Press Association, and 16 different law professors filed friend-of-the-court briefs in defense of Prison Legal News’ lawsuit, according to the Orlando Sentinel. They feared that the state’s position could call into question the distribution of other news materials to the incarcerated.

Publisher Wright says that the publication will appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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