Sunday, September 9, 2012

Should Inmates' First Amendment Speech Allow for Media Interviews?

An interesting bill lies on Governor Brown's desk, awaiting his signature: AB 1270 would allow, and set procedures for, media interviews with prisoners.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, would dramatically change the parameters of free speech in prison.

Under the new bill, CDCR would be required to allow interviews with inmates on a pre-arranged and on a random basis, unless the warden determines that the interview "poses an immediate threat to public safety or the security of the institution." The interview request should be presented within a reasonable time, and the interview itself requires the inmate's consent, as well as a notification to the victim or his/her family ahead of time. The inmate is not to receive any form of remuneration for participating in the interview, and CDCR is not to change an inmate's status or punish him or her for giving an interview.

Currently, media interviews in CDCR prisons with specific inmates are not allowed (visiting prison and speaking to inmates at random is allowed under certain conditions.). The Supreme Court's decision in Pell v. Procunier (1974) upheld this regime, arguing that the existing provisions for media contact meant that there was no First Amendment violation.

Let's think about a few potential applications of this. One of the concern folks might have is about sensational interviews providing wanton publicity for perpetrators of heinous crimes. Notifying the victim's family is not, of course, procuring the victim's family's consent. And yes, it would mean more air time for tasteless, heinous and sensationalist media coverage. But how would that be different from the tasteless, heinous, sensational television we already watch?

Think about how much good it could do an innocent inmate if reporters would pick up the cause and pursue it, and how helpful it would be if, in addition to other footage, they could speak to the inmate him/herself. It's enough to be reminded of the stunning impact that Paradise Lost, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory have had on the West Memphis Three case (here's a great interview with the filmmakers).

And think of how much more attention the Pelican Bay hunger strike would have received if the public got its news not just from CDCR officials, and some crumbs from what families got through letters. But under the new proposition, it's likely that CDCR would still have the prerogative to decline the interviews based on institutional safety reasons.

If you support the bill, you can let the Governor know your position.

cross-posted to PrawfsBlawg.

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