Iowa Must Face Suit by Inmates Seeking Access to Porn

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – An Iowa judge denied the state’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a group of prison inmates who say a law enacted last year violates their constitutional rights by denying them access to materials that are sexually explicit or feature nudity.

The Iowa attorney general filed a motion in January to dismiss the prisoners’ lawsuit, arguing it failed to state a claim and the court lacks jurisdiction.

Polk County District Court Judge Scott Rosenberg issued a three-sentence order denying the motion Monday, which was made available Tuesday. The prisoners’ petition does state a claim, Rosenberg wrote, over which the court has jurisdiction.

A spokesman for the Iowa Department of Corrections, which is named in the suit along with the state and the Iowa Legislature, declined to comment Wednesday.

The attorney general’s office said it will file a motion for summary judgment in 30 to 45 days.

In an email to Courthouse News, pro se plaintiff Jack Hays, who is serving a life sentence for a sex crime, said the attorney general’s motion was “frivolous” and “neither based in law nor fact.”

“I would like to stress that this lawsuit is for Iowa’s citizen (including women prisoners) who wish to continue to read and view the arts,” Hays said. “Though some of the material that is in the free communication of ideas may have nudity or be sexually explict, this is necessary in order to convey certain thoughts, emotions, etc. We are not seeking obscene material.” (Parentheses in original.)

Thirteen Anamosa State Penitentiary inmates sued the state last September, arguing the statute enacted by the Legislature in 2018 violates their First Amendment rights.

The Iowa law, which is modeled on language in federal law regulating federal prisons, says that funds appropriated to the Department of Corrections “or other funds made available to the department shall not be used to distribute or make available any commercially published information or material to an inmate when such information or material is sexually explicit or features nudity.”

The prisoners argued in their pro se complaint that the statute is unconstitutional.

“This law sweeps so broadly as to prohibit substantial amounts of constitutionally protected speech, art, fine art, etc.,” the lawsuit states. “Moreover, it is clear that the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) intend[ed] to take property already acquired and/or acquired legally with private funds.”

The attorney general’s office had argued that the case should be dismissed because the state has a penological interest in banning pornography in its prisons, Assistant Attorney General William Hill told Judge Rosenberg at a hearing on the motion in January.

The inmates, who participated in the January hearing by phone from the prison, argued their case is not about pornography but about their constitutional right to have access to literature and art that may include nudity, like what may be seen on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

A similar lawsuit filed in federal court by an inmate in a Fort Dodge, Iowa, correctional facility says Iowa’s statute that forbids “all periodicals which contain any nudity, no matter the purpose” violates inmates’ First Amendment rights.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt in Des Moines ruled last month that inmate Michael Lindgren’s claim “does not appear to be wholly frivolous and may proceed.” Pratt also directed the appointment of counsel to represent Lindgren, and the court granted the appointed counsel until March 15 to file a formal complaint.

Pornography is banned in the federal prison system and in several states. The Seventh Circuit ruled in 2015 that Illinois inmates have no First Amendment right to receive porn magazines in prison. Connecticut implemented a ban on sexually explicit material in prison and jails in 2012, and Texas also has a ban.

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