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FDOC objects to amicus brief in PLN censorship suit

News 4 Jax, Dec. 28, 2015.

News organizations file motion to fight bar from Florida's prisons

Judge ruled this summer Department of Corrections could ban Prison Legal News

By Jim Saunders

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Department of Corrections is seeking to block state and national media organizations from filing a brief in a legal battle about whether a publication should be barred from Florida's prisons.

Seven news and First Amendment organizations, including the Florida Press Association, the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation and the American Society of News Editors, filed a motion this month in a federal appeals court seeking to file a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Prison Legal News, a publication prohibited from the state's prisons.

But the Department of Corrections has objected to the motion, along with similar requests by a group of former prison officials from across the country and a group of law professors, according to court documents posted online.

The dispute at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals comes after U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker ruled this summer that the Department of Corrections could ban Prison Legal News because its advertisements pose a threat to security. Walker, meanwhile, sided with Prison Legal News on an issue about whether the department had violated the publication's due-process rights by failing to provide notification when copies were impounded.

Appeals ensued, with the outside groups filing a series of documents this month seeking to weigh in with briefs.

The media and First Amendment organizations, in part, argue that the department's position could threaten other types of newspapers distributed in prisons. For example, the organizations said newspapers such as the Tallahassee Democrat, Gainesville Sun and Miami Herald are distributed in prisons. (Disclosure: The News Service of Florida is a member of the First Amendment Foundation.)

"Daily newspapers distributed in Florida prisons now include advertisements for alcoholic beverages, firearms and ammunition, and numerous other products or services that the state prohibits prisoners from possessing or using,'' said a copy of the brief, which is attached to the organization's motion. "If the state can prohibit distribution of Prison Legal News in Florida prisons simply because it carries advertising for products or services prisoners cannot acquire or use, the state also could prohibit distribution of most publications."

But in objecting to the media organizations' motion, Senior Assistant Attorney General Lance Eric Neff wrote that the brief "relies heavily on non-prisoner First Amendment law that has no application behind prison walls."

"Further, to the extent the news organizations are worried that their publications will be improperly rejected by the department under the rule in question, there was absolutely no evidence submitted to the lower (district) court that supports this situation has ever occurred,'' wrote Neff, representing the Department of Corrections. "Thus, the worries put forth by the news organizations are nothing more than conjecture and speculation about events that have never taken place and likely never will. As such, they are unhelpful to this (appeals) court."

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