Is allowing inmates access to the Internet - even in the ultimate in slow access: receiving printouts of websites through the mail - a proper restriction or a fundamental violation of free speech? It's a question the federal courts will address in an inmate lawsuit, USAToday reports. Even MySpace is getting pulled into the controversy of inmate access to cyberspace, as pressure mounts on the service to block inmates' profiles.
When a friend sent Georgia inmate Danny Williams some legal research that had been downloaded from the Internet earlier this year, state prison guards confiscated the package.
Prison officials said the material was prohibited under a five-year-old regulation that bars inmates from receiving any printed material downloaded from the Internet. The policy is designed to prevent inmates from gaining access to material on the Internet that could compromise security — bombmaking instructions, for example.
Williams is challenging that policy in federal court. While inmates don't have access to computers, should they be able to receive online information in print form? Certainly prison officials have an interest in stopping the flow of information about bombmaking or prison escape techniques, but just as certainly prisoners have a right to use the Internet to say, do legal research for beef up their parole appeals or challenge their convictions. A bar on all Internet-based information, even that which can be easily previewed and censored as necessary seems to violate basic First Amendment rights.
Andy Kahan, director of Houston's crime victims office, says some of that speech, potentially viewable around the world, could reinjure victims. "It's like getting (harmed) all over again," Kahan says.
Williams attack may be looked on favorably by the courts if prior decisions are any guide.
A federal appeals court in California two years ago sided with an inmate who was barred under state prison regulations from receiving printed copies of Internet-generated documents through regular mail. In Arizona, prisoners' rights groups successfully challenged a state law that once banned inmates from exchanging written mail with Internet service providers or establishing profiles on websites through outside contacts.
Now in Texas victims' rights groups and government officials are trying to stop inmates from maintaining MySpace profiles. The community was outraged that Randy Halprin, one of seven inmates who escaped from prison in 2000 and went on a murderous rampage, had a MySpace profile (since deleted, not by MySpace)
"Is it (MySpace's) policy to give killers a platform for all the world to see?" Kahan says. "I'm asking MySpace to take a stand. Do they want convicted killers to infiltrate a system geared to young people?"
But it's not a crime to have a MySpace profile in most states and it's not against MySpace's user agreement.
MySpace spokesman Jeff Berman says the site is reviewing profiles posted on behalf of inmates and says it will "remove any that violate our terms of service, such as hate speech, advocating violence and threatening conduct.
"Unless you violate the terms of service or break the law, we don't step in the middle of free expression," Berman says. "There's a lot on our site we don't approve of in terms of taste or ideas, but it's not our role to be censors."