Did Pa. prisons block Worker's World because of "articles that call for people to join the fight against white supremacy"?

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Reader Arne Langstmo passed along this letter, asking, "Can this possibly be legal, if true?"

I asked the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and here was their answer:

Thank you for your email inquiring about the Workers World denial. We completely understand the confusion created and accept full responsibility for the poorly written reason for denial.

First of all, there are NO current issues of Workers World on the DOC Denied Publication list. Inmates have received Workers World in the past and continue to do so. The letter to which you refer was a denial from one State Correctional Institution to ONE inmate. It was a first level denial. Pursuant to our policy, DC-ADM 803, we must provide notice to publishers at the first level of appeal. The letter at issue was to provide the publisher with notice of a denial and the opportunity to appeal. No publications are placed on a statewide ban without review by the Policy Office. This particular issue has not been reviewed yet.

The reason for the denial was grossly inaccurate. The Department of Corrections does NOT tolerate racism in any form and supports policies of equality. The denial was based on language in an article about White Supremacy that was interpreted as a literal call to violence rather than an ideological statement.

We will review the entire issue and make a determination whether the denial should be overturned to the inmate to whom it was denied. Again, the reason had nothing to do with white supremacy other than what was interpreted as a call for a potential violent act.

Please let us know if you have any questions.

Prisoners' free speech rights—including their rights to receive information—are much more limited than the rights of those outside prisons, but they aren't completely lost; and certainly a viewpoint-based ban on speech because it opposes white supremacy would be unconstitutional. But banning material that calls for violence (even in ways that would be constitutionally protected outside prison under Brandenburg v. Ohio), or that otherwise undermines prison security, is permissible. If the Department response is right that the original letter mischaracterized the situation, and it was the "join the fight" part (with the fight referring to violence) that triggered the prohibition and not the "against white supremacy" part, that should be constitutional.

UPDATE: In response to a reader comment about the initial letter saying the denial was for all inmates—as opposed to the reply, which said it was just for one—I followed up with the Department; they responded by saying that they had an updated publisher form letter, which reflects the policy of a first-level denial affecting only one inmate:


From: Office of Policy, Grants & Legislative Affairs
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
1920 Technology Parkway
Mechanicsburg, PA 17050


RE: Publication Denial

Please be advised that the Incoming Publication Review Committee, (IPRC) at State Correctional Institution (SCI) ____________has denied the following publication: ____________ to inmate __________

Reason for denial: (Insert Reason)

The denial at the SCI is a first level denial. First level denials do NOT result in placement on the statewide reviewed publication list as a denial; however, without further action, this inmate will not receive the publication.

Publisher Appeals:

Pursuant to DC-ADM 803 "Inmate Mail and Incoming Publications", you have 15 working days to
appeal this denial to the Office of Policy, Grants & Legislative Affairs (PGL). Upon a timely receipt of an appeal, PGL will review the decision of the IPRC de novo. Responses must be sent, in writing, to:

Office of Policy, Grants and Legislative Affairs
PA Department of Corrections
1920 Technology Parkway
Mechanicsburg, PA 17050

If PGL affirms the denial, the publication will be placed on the statewide reviewed publication list as "denied" and it will be banned from all inmates in the Department of Corrections. If PGL overrules the denial, the publication will also be placed on the statewide list as "approved" and will be permitted to all inmates without further review in the future.

If you have any questions, please refer to the DC-ADM 803, which can be found at www.cor.pa.gov.

Thank you,

Office of Policy, Grants and Legislative Affairs
PA Department of Corrections