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December 16, 2002

Judge orders halt to Arizona law that censored anti-Death Penalty web sites

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Eleanor Eisenberg, ACLU of AZ (602) 650-1967 ---- Kara Gotsch, Nat'l Prison Project (202) 393-4930

In Phoenix, citing fears of "irreparable harm" to the First Amendment, a federal judge today halted enforcement of an Arizona law that bars all information about state prisoners from the global Internet and bans communication between prisoners and organizations that may publish information about them on their web sites.

"Arizona's attempt to censor Internet content was a frightening step toward government repression of free speech," said Eleanor Eisenberg, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which along with the ACLU's National Prison Project had challenged the law. "Today's court order puts a timely and immediate stop to this ill-conceived law."

Acting on behalf of anti-death penalty and other advocacy groups, the ACLU filed the lawsuit, Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty v. Terry L. Stewart, in federal district court in July seeking to invalidate the speech ban. Under the law, prisoners were barred from corresponding with a "communication service provider" or "remote computing service" and faced discipline if any person outside prison walls accessed a provider or service website at a prisoner's request.

Today's decision blocks Department of Corrections officials from continuing to punish prisoners found in violation of the law. According to recent reports, corrections officials had demanded that prisoners have their names and case information removed from advocacy web sites or face prison discipline and possible criminal prosecution. Ironically, prisoners would have been in violation of the statute by communicating with a service provider or website when requesting to have their information removed.

"Putting free speech behind bars simply because it concerns prisoners sets a dangerous precedent," said David C. Fathi, staff counsel with the ACLU's National Prison Project and co-counsel on the suit. "Today's decision makes clear that Arizona may not jail the Internet."

The ACLU's organizational clients are the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty, which has information about 45 Arizona prisoners on its website; Stop Prisoner Rape, a group that seeks to end sexual violence against individuals in detention; and Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a group that organizes public education campaigns with the intention of abolishing the death penalty. All of the ACLU's clients maintain websites with prisoner information.

Today's ruling marks the second time in recent months that a court has rejected attempts by state prison officials to restrict prisoner speech online. In September, a U.S. district court judge in California ruled that prisoners have a First Amendment right to receive mail that contains material printed from the Internet. The ACLU of Northern California and the Prison Law Office brought that case, Clement v. California Department of Corrections, on behalf of Pelican Bay prisoner Frank Clement.

Fathi of the ACLU's National Prison Project, Ann Beeson of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program and Alice Bendheim and Pamela K. Sutherland of the ACLU of Arizona are all serving as co-counsel in the Arizona case.

(source: CCADP)
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