Update February 29, 2016: EFF has received confirmation that Chelsea Manning received the print-outs we sent directly. However, the U.S. Army has not responded to our correspondence. 

Update April 13, 2016: The U.S. Army has confirmed in writing to Chelsea Manning that the packets were withheld due to being too many pages, rather than copyright concerns. See our follow-up post for more information. 

EFF was dismayed to learn last week that the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) at Fort Leavenworth has refused to provide inmate Chelsea Manning with printouts of EFF blog posts and other materials related to prisoner censorship. Worse yet, it appears that the reason is ostensibly to protect EFF’s copyrights.

Manning is serving a 35-year sentence for her role in the release of military and diplomatic documents to Wikileaks. A volunteer from her support network attempted to send her a series of articles EFF wrote last year about our work defending the rights of inmates to maintain an online presence. This included articles about severe punishments leveled at inmates with Facebook profiles and our views on how prison telecommunications systems should be regulated. Also attached were relevant public records from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, EFF’s comments to the Federal Communications Commission, and articles from Buzzfeed and the Harvard Business Review.

Manning was only allowed to have the Bureau of Prisons documents—an agency handbook and slide show on Facebook takedowns—but everything else was withheld. Instead, Manning received a notification that said the mail was rejected because it contained “printed Internet materials, including email, of a volume exceeding five pages per day or the distribution of which may violate U.S. copyright laws.”

It is possible that the Army withheld the documents because they were longer than fives pages. However, we believe this to be unlikely since the documents it did deliver were far longer than any of the other materials and exceeded five pages. That means that it was potentially copyright concerns that resulted in Manning’s mail being censored.

EFF quickly sent USDB a letter explaining that all EFF content is available for reuse under a Creative Commons Attribution license that allows for the material to be freely shared and remixed. The Creative Commons license is indicated, and the full policy linked, at the bottom of every page of our website. As the copyright holder, we asked the prison to provide Manning with the documents immediately and not to block any further EFF material from the facility. We further pointed out that our comments to the FCC were also public records, not simply information printed out from the Internet. We asked for a response by Thursday, February 18, 2016.

Read EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn’s letter to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth.

As of Monday morning, EFF has received no response from the Army explaining the matter or clarifying why the material was withheld. Manning has also not received the documents. We have since put the documents in the mail ourselves.

Over the last year and a half, EFF has been researching and writing about how prisons have sought to censor and punish inmates for having presences on social media sites, particularly Facebook. The blocked materials sent to Manning included:

It is tremendously important to EFF that people who are incarcerated have access to our materials. For example, our Creative Commons license allows Prison Legal News to regularly republish our work in its periodical, which is widely circulated in corrections facilities nationwide.

We also believe that there are many pages on the Internet, freely available to anyone with a Web browser, which would prove edifying to prisoners. We would be deeply concerned by a prison policy that blocked any copyrighted works from the Web being printed and distributed to prisoners, as this would block the overwhelming majority of news articles and academic publications. In the case of the materials denied to Manning, we hope that the Army made a mistake and does not have a policy of misusing copyright to deny prisoners access to important materials that the general public can freely access.

Prisoners do not lose all rights when they step behind bars. Not only are prisoners allowed to access a wide range of news articles, legal documents, and other education materials, but as a society we should actively encourage prisoners to access materials that help them better understand their rights and the legal system. Prisoners like Manning who want to stay up on events that can directly impact them and others should be supported, not prevented, from accessing information.

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