Longtime RBGG client Prison Legal News (PLN) was granted summary judgment on First and Fourteenth Amendment claims by a federal court in Arizona on March 8, 2019 in a case involving censorship of the Prison Legal News publication by the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC). The case is Prison Legal News v. Charles L. Ryan, No. CV-15-02245, U.S. District Court, Arizona.
The court ruled that an ADC policy banning sexually explicit and/or sexually suggestive materials was unconstitutional both because it “violates the First Amendment on its face” and because ADC applied the policy to ban Prison Legal News when there was no legitimate penological reason for doing so. Judge Rosalyn Silver also found that two individuals responsible for the promulgation and enforcement of the policy, ADC Director Charles Ryan and Deputy Director Jeff Hood, were individually liable both for the First Amendment violations, and for failing to provide PLN with notice of its censorship in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. An order for injunctive relief is pending. Trial on damages is scheduled for later this year.
Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, the publisher of PLN, was quoted in media coverage of the ruling by KJZZ – the Phoenix public radio station. (Judge Finds Prison Policy Unconstitutional) According to Mr. Wright, “I call it a First Amendment case that happens to be in prison. This is about a publishers right to distribute our magazine to an incarcerated audience.” Later in the article he goes on to say, “I don’t really think that they, actually, in their heart of hearts, believe that we are pornographic, so much as they are using this as a pretext to try to censor us and prevent prisoners in Arizona from learning what their rights are in the event that they are sexually assaulted.” PLN has approximately 9,000 subscribers nationwide, 70% of whom are incarcerated.
RBGG’s Lisa Ells, lead counsel for PLN on the case, commented: “Whether they have taken out the publication wholesale or they’re just using the government censor pen and redacting out what they don’t like, either one is a violation of the First Amendment. Because it’s the government deciding what people can and can’t read inside the prison system.” Ms. Ells goes on to say, “If the Arizona Department of Corrections feels like it can censor this publication when it’s quoting court cases, then it also feels like it can censor what the courts can say or what prisoners can read about their legal rights in the prison system.” She praised the court’s ruling in this precedent setting case: “We think it had the potential to really expand censorship in other prison systems across the country if she hadn’t held firm here.”