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Nevada federal court rules in favor of PLN in censorship lawsuit

Reno Gazette-Journal, Jan. 1, 2000.
Nevada federal court rules in favor of PLN in censorship lawsuit - Reno Gazette-Journal 2000

Reno Gazette-Journal

August 17, 2000 Thursday

Judge halts prisons from banning journal

By Mike Henderson

RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL

The Nevada Department of Prisons was wrong to ban the Prison Legal News journal from distribution among inmates, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

Chief U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben issued a preliminary injunction stopping prison officials' blanket ban on the publication but said they can censor individual issues if hose issues pose a risk to prison security or personal safety.

He found the state "consented" to the preliminary injunction sought in a lawsuit filed July 12 after Nevada inmates claimed they hadn't been receiving their subscriptions to the journal.

"It was an easy concession to make," Deputy Attorney General Joe Ward said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, working through Reno lawyer Donald York Evans, claimed the blanket prohibition was a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and press.

"When you're right, you're right," Evans said. "We knew we were right going in and we felt confident that we would obtain the immediately relief that we requested."

But Ward stopped short of saying the state had violated anyone's rights.

Prison Legal News is a "monthly journal of corrections, news and analyses," the ACLU said. "It has over 3,500 subscribers in the United States and abroad, including judges, attorneys and prisoners."

Nevada had about 30 inmate subscribers last August when John Slansky, assistant director of operations for Nevada prisons, sent a memo to Warden Sherman Hatcher at the Southern Desert Correction Center near Las Vegas.

"The publication Prison Legal News is being sent to some inmates," the memo said. "It is a newsletter published and edited by two Washington inmates. Inmate newsletters are prohibited by AD 41-95," an administrative directive dating to 1995.

Ward said subsequent federal court decisions appear to make that directive invalid so a new directive has been issued to replace it.

"The victory is not won yet until we get a settlement because the state of Nevada cost us a lot of money," said Fred Markham, the Seattle-based publication's circulation manager. "We're going to have to have something and of course the lawyers are going to have to have something. Had they operated in a reasonable manner in the beginning, we wouldn't have had this problem."

Evans said he could not estimate how much money the publication and lawyers will seek from the state.

Markham said Prison Legal News is published by Rollin Wright, a Florida resident whose son, Paul Wright, is serving a murder sentence in a prison near Seattle. Paul Wright is editor of the newsletter but was not a party in the suit.

Markham said the publication, for which inmates paid $15 a year for 12 issues of about 32 pages each, will try to get back issues to Nevada inmates who have not received them because of the ban. In addition, the magazine will honor the balance of their subscriptions and may give them credit for additional issues for those they did not receive.

The subscription rate recently was increased to $18 a month, he said, but that rate will not be applied other issues involved in the Nevada prisons problem.

Evans said the lawsuit never contested the authority of prison officials to censor individual issues of the publication.

"The censorship must be related to the safety and security of the institution, such as an article on building a bomb in prison or escaping from prison or soliciting gang membership in prison," Evans said.

Ward proposed a directive, adopted by the prison system, which permits censorship for exactly those sorts of issues.