A Banned Magazine Is Trying to Take Florida Prison System to the Supreme Court

Florida prisons completely ban Prison Legal News magazine. Now the publication is asking the Supreme Court to "vindicate the First Amendment."


Julie Fletcher/TNS/Newscom

Prison Legal News, a long-running and indispensable legal resource for inmates across the country, filed a petition to the Supreme Court Friday asking it to review the Florida Department of Corrections' total ban on the magazine.

Florida prisons have impounded every issue of Prison Legal News since 2009. In May the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the policy, overturning a lower court's decision in favor of the magazine. The 11th Circuit found that the Florida's DOC's justification for the ban—advertisements for several services not allowed in the prisons, such as pen pals and three-way calling—was legitimately related to security.

Prison Legal News argues that the ban is a solution in search of a problem, that it violates the First Amendment rights of inmates as well as those of the publication, and that it paves the way for broad censorship in other prison systems, all while never demonstrating any actual rise in security threats during the many years the magazine was distributed among Florida inmates.

The magazine has a notable voice in its corner: former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, who has argued more than 90 cases before the Supreme Court and is a co-counsel on the petition.

In that petition, Prison Legal News calls the 11th Circuit decision "an outlier ruling upholding an outlier policy." As it notes, Florida is alone in its position. Although the publication has battled censorship in 29 states, making it perhaps the most frequently banned magazine in the country, neither the federal prison system or any other state prison systems bans the magazine in its entirety.

The petition continues:

By ratcheting up the deference owed to prison officials and ratcheting down the quantum of evidence those officials must supply to justify wholesale censorship of core free speech rights, the Eleventh Circuit's decision is grossly out of step with this Court's precedents. And it is flatly inconsistent with the rulings of other circuits that have faithfully applied this Court's decisions to reject censorship of the "core protected speech" that Prison Legal News offers in its magazines.

Although the censorship of PLN has been limited to Florida, the threat to First Amendment rights if the decision is left standing certainly does not end there. The Eleventh Circuit's decision provides both an invitation and a roadmap to silence PLN and any other publication that seeks to inform prisoners of their rights or to expose unlawful conduct by prison officials. There is little doubt that the ruling below will prompt other prison systems to follow Florida's lead. Rather than let that trend blossom into further censorship, this Court should step in now to vindicate the First Amendment.

The petition notes that the ban blocks inmates from reading about civil rights abuses and new legal developments in the very prisons they're housed in. Such bans are not unusual on an issue-by-issue basis. Reason Magazine, for instance, frequently has issues impounded by prison censors, including in Florida, for presenting threats "to the security, good order, or discipline of the correctional system."

Numerous First Amendment groups are expected to file amicus briefs in support of Prison Legal News.