The United States Army has blocked U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who is in prison at Fort Leavenworth, from reading printouts of posts from the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website. Ironically, most of the materials dealt with the issue of prison censorship.
Manning is serving a thirty-five year prison sentence at Leavenworth. She was convicted of offenses stemming from her decision to provide WikiLeaks over a half million U.S. government documents, which exposed war crimes, diplomatic misconduct, and other instances of wrongdoing and questionable acts by U.S. officials.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is an organization, which fights for digital freedom and defends privacy rights. According to EFF president and executive director, Cindy Cohn, an “associate” of Manning’s “attempted to send” Manning a “packet of informational material, much of which was printed” from EFF.org.
“This included several articles regarding the free speech rights of inmates, as well as the text of our formal comments to the Federal Communications Commission on proposed regulations of inmate telecommunications services providers,” Cohn described in a letter sent to Fort Leavenworth. “The packet also included a slideshow from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, a Bureau of Prisons handbook, and a news article from a media website called Buzzfeed about inmate rights that were based on public records compiled” by EFF.
Manning was allowed to receive the Bureau of Prisons materials. However, the prison rejected the EFF printouts. One of the reasons given to justify the rejection involved “concerns of copyright infringement.”
How printing articles from any website to share with others to read could be considered “copyright infringement” is beyond comprehension. It would seem to be the best excuse that the prison could come up with to keep Manning from reading material that would sharpen her ability to assert her rights to freedom of speech from within Leavenworth.
One major issue with invoking “copyright” as a reason to the censor the material is that all of EFF’s posts are Creative Commons-licensed. This is, as Cohn told Leavenworth, a “type of license that copyright holders can use to allow others to share their content without concern about violating copyright. Creative Commons licenses are considered open licenses or public licenses. That means they permit anyone to use the works they cover, regardless of the user’s relationship with the licensor.”
In other words, the person who printed EFF posts and mailed them to Manning was doing exactly what EFF encourages readers to do.
Manning received a notification which indicated the rejection took place because it included “printed Internet materials, including email, of a volume exceeding five pages per day or the distribution of which may violate U.S. copyright laws.” However, the Bureau of Prisons materials the Army permitted Manning to receive were longer than five pages.
Cohn requested the Army correct its decision to block Manning from receiving EFF posts. The organization also urged the prison to “not withhold any materials created by EFF” from any prisoner in the future, especially if the Army intends to erroneously claim copyright prevents EFF materials from being shared.
“Because we are concerned that other prisoners may be denied access to our materials due to unfounded copyright concerns, we do expect to write publicly about this situation,” Cohn concluded. The organization looked forward to clarification that Manning was granted the ability to read the EFF posts.
EFF’s letter to Leavenworth was sent on February 11. More than ten days later, the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks—or prison—where Manning is confined has not replied.
These are the materials, which the Army has censored:
- EFF Deeplinks: Hundreds of South Carolina Inmates Sent to Solitary Confinement Over Facebook
- EFF Deeplinks: Defending Prisoner Rights in the Digital World: 2015 in Review
- EFF Deeplinks: The FCC Should Ensure Digital Rights for Prisoners and Their Families
- Buzzfeed: These Inmates Got Years In Solitary Confinement For Making A Music Video
- Harvard Business Review: Can Your Employees Really Speak Freely?
In general, EFF asserted that the vast majority of pages on the Internet should be “freely available” to anyone and 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,” EFF added. “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.”
There are two distinct possibilities: (1) the Army is seriously abusing the concept of copyright to censor reading material or (2) the Army does not want Manning to read materials about inmates’ freedom of speech and ham-handedly invoked “copyright” to make their censorship more defensible. (Yet, if this is the case, one would think they would have at least had the sense to familiarize themselves with EFF before denying Manning access.)
It would not be absurd to think Manning was facing some kind of retaliation for her continued political advocacy from within the prison. Last year, Manning was punished for expired toothpaste and for having LGBTQ literature.
The Army objected to the fact that Manning possessed the following reading materials and confiscated them:
Yet, even if it is never proven that this is the result of personal animosity toward Manning, the prison is engaged in an egregious act of censorship against inmates.
Like EFF argued, “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.”