The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is getting in the digital censorship game with a new policy that would punish an offender for having a social media presence, even when someone on the outside is posting updates on their behalf.

As reported by Fusion, Texas’ new offender manual [.pdf] creates a prohibition on inmates "maintaining active social media accounts for the purposes of soliciting, updating, or engaging others, through a third party or otherwise." The rule flies in the face of free expression by penalizing offenders not only for their own use of social media, but also when their friends and family on the outside maintain their social media accounts to draw attention to prisoner issues.

As prison officials told Fusion, offenders would be charged with a level three disciplinary violation. While that is the lowest level offense, even minor violations can result in extreme punishments [.pdf], such as being confined to their cell for up to 45 days, extra work duty, or losing privileges. The new rule is also designed to lay the groundwork for Texas prison officials to ask social media sites to take down inmate profiles.

EFF does not oppose prison restrictions that target criminal behavior or harassment on social media by inmates. However, a person does not lose all of their rights to participate in public discourse when they are incarcerated. Supporters of inmates often use social media to raise attention about prison conditions and the appeal campaigns of individual prisoners. This policy would not only prohibit the prisoners’ exercise of their First Amendment rights, but also prevent the public from exercising their First Amendment rights to gather information about the criminal justice system from those most affected by it. If Martin Luther King, Jr. had written “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” today from a Texas prison, this policy would prohibit his wife from publishing it on his social media accounts.

As EFF previously reported, policies like these have been abused by prisons across the country, most notably in South Carolina, where inmates sometimes received more than a decade in solitary confinement for maintaining a presence on social media.

Texas should reverse this policy immediately. And social media providers—particularly Facebook, which previously automatically suspended inmate accounts at the request of prisons but has since reformed the process—should resist this censorship regime.

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