Everything will depend on whether alleged violations of the First and 14th Amendment by the Virginia Department of Corrections can be proved.
But it’s a risk worth taking, a fight worth making.
Charlottesville attorney Jeff Fogel had filed suit in federal court in Richmond against five corrections officials, claiming that they wrongly censored the writings of Uhuru Baraka Rowe, an inmate at Sussex II State Prison.
Inmates have First Amendment rights to free speech and publication, just like the rest of us. However, prison officials censored two of Mr. Rowe’s essays on poor prison conditions, the suit days.
Officials are permitted to censor inmates’ work if their words present a security risk.
The suit seeks to prove that officials acted, at least in part, because they wanted to quell criticism.
That’s not allowed under the First Amendment. Meanwhile, the 14th Amendment, among other things, ensures that all laws and constitutional rights apply equally to all citizens — including citizens who are in prison.
Mr. Rowe has been highly critical of conditions at the prison. In one of the two essays, which have now been released, he compares Sussex II to a “Potemkin village” — a reference to fake, portable villages said to have been created by Grigory Potemkin to fool and impress Empress Catherine II.
Whether such villages are myth or not, the tale has entered our lexicon as a metaphor for assuming a false front, especially amid political and economic issues.
Mr. Rowe claims that officials put on a good show when inspectors come to visit, but that conditions inevitably revert to injustice and even cruelty when inspectors leave.
There really are two issues at stake here.
The immediate question is whether prison officials actually did censor Mr. Rowe’s work in order to suppress criticism and, in a sense, to make themselves look good — in itself, a form of the Potemkin village.
The second, of course, is whether conditions at the prison really are as bad as Mr. Rowe claims.
Both questions deserve scrutiny.
The court case will formally determine whether officials did indeed violate the First Amendment in censoring the essays for an impermissible reason.
The validity of Mr. Rowe’s complaints would require quite a different sort of proof — and a different sort of process. If — repeat, if — he’s right, then an investigation would have to delve far deeper than the surface Potemkin surveys he claims have been conducted to date.
But first things first: the lawsuit.
Recently, Mr. Fogel amended his lawsuit to drop some officials’ names and add others based on a judge’s earlier ruling. The judge dismissed four of the five Department of Corrections officials from the original filing, saying that the suit had failed to supply sufficient grounds for including them.
However, he also left the door open for these same officials to be added back to the suit if sufficient grounds were submitted.
The amended suit drops one previous defendant but names three new defendants.
Mr. Fogel must prove that they were responsible for the alleged censorship.
And he must prove that the censorship violated the First Amendment: that is, officials’ motive — wholly or in part — was to shield themselves and the prison from criticism.
It’s an important case, both for calling officials to account for a possible constitutional violation at Sussex and also for calling officials’ attention elsewhere to the necessity of protecting First Amendment rights — even inside prison.