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PLN censorship suit against Florida DOC profiled

Palm Beach Post, Dec. 12, 2014. http://www.mypalmbeachpost.com/news/news/florid...

Florida won’t let newspaper about prison conditions into its prisons

Updated: 6:10 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12, 2014  |  Posted: 5:52 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12, 2014

By Pat Beall - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

 

Lake Worth-based Prison Legal News doesn’t ask much of Florida’s Department of Corrections.

Just readers.

Not for the first time, the widely respected, 22-year old national newspaper of prison conditions and inmates’ legal rights is being stopped at the door of Florida prisons.

And not for the first time, PLN is taking Florida prison officials to court. Trial is now slated for January.

Florida’s is the only prison system in the United States to ban the publication, said editor and founder Paul Wright.

“It is no surprise they want to suppress the media,” said Wright, citing recent media reports in The Palm Beach Post, The Miami Herald and others detailing horrific medical conditions and lethal brutality among guards.

The Department of Corrections declined comment.

It’s not just PLN that doesn’t get through. Last year, a former Irish pub owner serving time for sale tax fraud sued DOC, alleging The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, Vanity Fair and Readers Digest were all being turned away at the door. Inmates report articles critical of DOC have sometimes been clipped from The Post before the paper gets to prisoners.

But those appear to be isolated incidents.

Prison Legal News is systematically stopped at all Florida prisons.

For years, PLN mailed its paper to Florida inmates without incident. That came to a halt in 2003, after DOC concluded that its ads for pen pals, three-way calling services and postage stamps posed a security threat.

PLN sued. DOC blinked. “On the morning of trial in 2005 they came into court and lied to the judge and said they would no longer censor us based on our advertising content,” Wright said.

The paper was allowed in again.

And now it isn’t, again.

Wright says the publication has tried since 2009 to persuade DOC to change its mind, but that’s stalled.

Wright isn’t the only one who believes the state’s argument against its advertising is a thinly veiled attempt to keep the content out of inmate’s hands.

“Advertising becomes an easy target” for corrections officials who can’t ban content without running afoul of the first amendment, said Miami attorney Thomas Julin.

Julin filed a legal brief supporting PLN on behalf of The Florida Press Association as well as three major national journalism organizations: The First Amendment Foundation, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.

At first blush, it’s not clear why PLN would be considered controversial. There are no screaming headlines. Stories are sometimes written by academics and lawyers. But the in-depth articles on criminal justice issues are “remarkable,” said Julin, “and you can see how that content would be disquieting to prison officials.”

According to court pleadings, DOC’s arguments stem in part from concerns that pen pal correspondence might enable inmates to operate a scam, and that stamps could be used as a substitute currency by prisoners.

PLN editors know those issues from the inside out. Managing editor Alex Friedman served 10 years in prison. Wright grew up in Lake Worth, but it was in Washington state that he was sentenced to 25 years behind bars for the shooting death of a drug dealer. A former military policeman,Wright started Prison Legal News from his jail cell. He was released in 2003.

The two men, PLN and the nonprofit that publishes it, the Human Rights Defense Center, have won national attention for mounting legal challenges involving public records access and prison bans of newspapers and other publications: PLN, for instance, publishes a guide to mail-order educational courses and a handbook on diabetes management for inmates.

Those also have been barred by DOC, Wright said. While some other jails and a handful of prisons object to the reading material, he said, Florida remains the most restrictive statewide prison system.

Julin agreed: Florida he said, “is definitely an outlier.”