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PLN letter to editor published re Kansas jail censorship suit

Courier-Journal, Jan. 1, 2011.
PLN letter to editor published re Kansas jail censorship suit - Courier-Journal 2011

Letter: News and lawsuits

Posted: September 15, 2011 - 10:54pm

The Topeka Capital-Journal’s editorial board on Sept. 7 took issue with the fact our nonprofit monthly publication, Prison Legal News, filed suit against the Shawnee County Board of Commissioners due to an illegal policy at the county jail that prohibits prisoners — including those who are awaiting trial and are presumed innocent — from receiving any books, magazines or newspapers.

The Capital-Journal was mainly upset that we didn’t call commissioners first and ask them to please stop violating our rights. We think that would be akin to the police calling up criminals first and asking them to please stop committing crimes. While there is no obligation to notify government officials who are violating the law that they may be sued, the U.S. Supreme Court does require officials who censor mail sent to prisoners to provide notice to the sender. As noted in our suit, the Shawnee County jail does not provide any such notice, and this is one of the illegal practices we seek to end.

We take our constitutional rights seriously. Since The Capital-Journal also is banned at the jail, presumably the newspaper could have called commissioners long ago and asked them to rescind the censorship policy, or filed its own lawsuit. The newspaper hasn’t done so.

We have a problem when government officials prohibit people from receiving our books and monthly publication in violation of the First Amendment. We believe in the rule of law, and laws are enforced in court — not with phone calls.

If the commissioners are willing to change the unconstitutional jail mail policy, they should do so now. But they shouldn’t have approved and enforced it to begin with.

It is well-established law that jails cannot ban all magazines, books and newspapers.

Frankly, we expected better from a sister media outlet such as The Capital-Journal. Rights are useless if you don’t enforce them, and the newspaper should be condemning the county for violating the First Amendment rather than criticizing us.

After all, if county officials hadn’t violated our rights in the first place there would have been no need to call them, or to file suit.

Associate Editor, PLN,
West Brattleboro, Vt.

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