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VA article mentions PLN censorship suit against Virginia DOC

Daily Progress, Jan. 1, 2010.
VA article mentions PLN censorship suit against Virginia DOC - Daily Progress 2010

New questions on censorship
By The Daily Progress

Published: February 10, 2010

The state corrections department is at it again.

Last year, you’ll remember, the department gained notoriety first for banning a local program to send books to inmates and then for a broader censorship issue in which prisoners were denied material ranging from James Joyce’s classic "Ulysses," to The Daily Progress, to Reader’s Digest.

Also banned were issues of Prison Legal News, a 7,000-circulation monthly magazine. It filed a lawsuit in October against a handful of officials at the state corrections department, claiming that they violated the First and 14th amendments.

Now comes a lawsuit alleging another violation of the First Amendment, this one involving religious expression. An inmate says he was denied a copy of a CD containing a sermon because the department does not allow inmates to receive spoken-word CDs, only music disks.
The policy raises an initial question: Why are spoken-word CDs banned but not music CDs? If the department is trying to keep agitating material out of the hands of inmates, as was its stated reason last year for blocking certain publications, then doesn’t it know that some pretty rough stuff comes through in the lyrics of many songs?

Then there is the religious freedom issue. Kyle Mabe claims he was denied a CD with a Christian sermon titled "Life Without a Cross," which was not available in written form, while he was an inmate at a correctional institution in Chesapeake last September. He says his request was denied based on the CD policy, as was the grievance (in-house appeal) he filed as a consequence.

He now says these decisions violated his constitutional right to freely practice his religion. The Albemarle County-based Rutherford Institute is backing him.

The policy demands review and explanation on two fronts: freedom of epxression and freedom of religion.

The First Amendment protects free expression and a free flow of information. Of course, prison officials have the duty to keep their institutions safe, and that may mean preventing inmates from having access to information deemed dangerous. But officials also have the constitutional responsibility to restrict only that information, and no more.

Add the angle of religious freedom, also protected by the First Amendment, and the suit’s allegations pack a double whammy. If the allegations are correct, then the Virginia Department of Corrections is violating the amendment from two directions.

Following last year’s accusations against the department, this latest lawsuit is all the more troubling.

It’s possible that these three free-speech complaints in rapid succession are a blood-in-the-water phenomenon: The department compromised after the first controversy, so perhaps critics sense weakness and are moving to take advantage.

But it’s also highly possible that the complaints are well-founded and that the department has a real problem with its policy regarding inmate access to information, whether CDs, books or newspapers.
We urge the Department of Corrections to make a comprehensive review of its policies in conjunction with First Amendment experts to prevent any further injustice to inmates and any further embarrassment to itself.

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