‘Militant’ fights seizure of issue
by Fla. prison authorities
Top, Reuters/Max Whittaker
Top, protest July 30 at state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., by family and supporters of inmates during 23rd day of hunger strike against solitary confinement in California prisons. Bottom, July 22 issue of Militant, impounded by authorities at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Florida for reporting on California hunger strike. Militant is fighting decision.
BY JOHN STUDER
The Militant is fighting a decision by prison officials at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton, Fla., to impound one of its issues sent to inmates who subscribe to the socialist newsweekly.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which agreed to represent the Militant, filed an appeal of the unconstitutional move to Florida’s Department of Corrections Literature Review Committee Sept. 23. On Oct. 2, the committee informed Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney for the Florida ACLU, that they rejected the appeal and their written decision would be forthcoming.
On Sept. 9 the paper received a letter from the prison saying the July 22 issue was impounded on the grounds that a news article reporting on the initiation of a hunger strike by prisoners in California “presents a threat to the security, good order, or discipline of the correctional system.” The impoundment, moreover, the notice said, will be enforced throughout the Florida state prison system — “in all major institutions, work camps, road prisons, and forestry camps” — where 32 workers behind bars receive the Militant each week. Three additional inmate subscribers in Florida are locked up in federal prisons.
“Impoundment of The Militant violates the free speech rights of both The Militant and its subscribing inmates,” says the appeal, filed by Stevenson. The Militant “requests the impoundment be reversed … and that all impounded issues be immediately delivered to their subscribers.”
“First Amendment free speech rights mean both the right to say and to hear, to publish and to receive news,” Stevenson said in a Sept. 27 phone interview.
Prison officials claim the July 22 issue’s front page article — “Calif. Prisoners Launch Hunger Strike Against Solitary Confinement, Abuses” — “encourages hunger strikes.” The short news item reported basic facts on the protest and quoted a family member of a hunger striker.
“The article is written for a general audience and for wide distribution and nowhere does the writer ‘encourage’ anyone to do anything, including inmates to engage in hunger strikes,” the appeal states. The hunger strikes in California, as well as those at the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the appeal says, “were matters of public interest and general conversation over the past summer.”
The hunger strike protests “were widely reported by national and local television networks, cable news providers, and by major news magazines and newspapers, including Miami Herald, Pensacola News Journal, Tallahassee Democrat, Tampa Bay Times, New York Times, Time, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today,” it says. Copies of the coverage of the California prison hunger strike from many of these news media, including two Op Ed pieces from the New York Times urging support for the hunger strikers, were attached to the appeal.
There is no evidence, the appeal says, that the Florida Department of Corrections censored any of these publications because of their coverage of the same topic.
“Moreover, this edition of The Militant was sent to subscribers in forty-four other prisons,” the appeal says, “including subscribers in several Florida prisons, the California prison Pelican Bay SHU (which was one subject of the article) and the federal prison in Florence, Colorado.” None of these other prisons rejected or impounded the issue.
The impoundment “violates not only free speech guarantees, but also due process and equal protection safeguards,” which amounts to an unconstitutional act of political censorship, the appeal says.
The fact that the paper, whose masthead describes it as “a socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people,” was singled out, the appeal says, is “explicable only by Santa Rosa CI’s hostility to the proclaimed or perceived political viewpoint of The Militant.”
The appeal includes two declarations from Militant editor Doug Nelson documenting the more than 80 subscribers in prisons around the country and the fact that the paper has received no other notice of the issue being impounded or rejected at any of them. Among the paper’s subscribers in U.S. prisons are 15 in California where the hunger strike took place.
In addition to the cited front-page article, the impounded issue included a full-page interview with René González, reprinted from Escambray, a weekly paper published in Cuba, entitled “In U.S. Prison System, Just Going to Trial Earns You Respect.” González, who won his fight to return to Cuba in May, is one of five revolutionaries — known internationally as the Cuban Five — who were framed up and imprisoned in the U.S. for their communist views and activities in defense of the Cuban Revolution. Among the paper’s subscribers behind bars today are the other four — Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino and Fernando González.
Stevenson told the Militant that the Florida ACLU has been involved in other efforts to defend the rights of inmates. “We successfully sued the Santa Rosa County sheriff to end a ‘post-card only’ mail policy that denied prisoners the right to mail or receive letters,” he said. “And we are working to end a similar policy in another county.”
“This is a fight for the rights of working people, those inside and outside prison walls,” Nelson said. “We’re proud of our growing subscriber base among workers behind bars and we have been getting a good response to our Prisoners’ Fund, which raises money from readers that helps ensure anyone in prison who wants to receive the paper can do so, regardless of their financial situation. We are going to fight to beat back the Florida prison authorities’ political censorship and efforts to deny inmates getting the news they want.”
The paper is appealing for support and funds from readers to pursue the fight, said Nelson.