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PLN sues Arizona jail over mail censorship

First Amendment Center, Jan. 1, 2011.
PLN sues Arizona jail over mail censorship - First Amendment Center 2011

Ariz. county jail’s postcard-only policy prompts lawsuit

David L. Hudson Jr.
First Amendment Scholar
Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Prison Legal News has filed a lawsuit in federal court, contending that the sheriff of Pinal County, Ariz., and other law enforcement officials have violated the First Amendment by prohibiting the delivery of books, magazines, newsletters and other materials to inmates at the county jail.

Pinal County Jail has adopted a postcards-only policy that allows individuals to send only postcards no larger than 5-by-7 inches. Prison Legal News, a prisoner-advocacy group, attempted to mail copies of its monthly journal, Prison Legal News, to numerous inmates. The group also tried to send to various inmates the paperback book Protecting Your Health and Safety — a guide to help them survive in prison.

The complaint in Prison Legal News v. Babeu — filed on Sept. 7 — contends that Sheriff Paul Babeu, Pinal County and various agents of the county and the sheriff’s department violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the free-speech provision of the Arizona Constitution by refusing the publication deliveries under the policy.

"Defendants' conduct prohibiting PLN from mailing its publications, informational brochures, books, and subscription renewal letters to prisoners confined at the Jail violates the First Amendment by censoring these expressive activities and has a chilling effect on future speech and expression directed at prisoners confined there," the complaint states.

Prison Legal News has filed lawsuits against jails in various parts of the country for similar postcard-only policies, including recently in Sacramento, Calif.

"This is flat-out censorship that is completely unjustified by any security or correctional concerns," said Daniel J. Pochoda, legal director of the ACLU of Arizona. "These materials have been allowed in many prisons and jails throughout the country. Other court decisions have required jails and prisons to allow such materials to be delivered to inmates."

"It is unfortunate that rather than respect the rights of publishers to communicate with inmates Sheriff Babeu continues to try to defend the indefensible by banning our books and magazines," said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News.

Messages left with Pinal County officials weren’t returned in time for this story.