State Prisoner's Litigation Efforts Contesting the Policy Banning Anarchist Political Publications/Materials in Tennessee Prisons 


Harold Thompson

In July of 1925 a schoolteacher named John Scopes went on trial in the small town of Dayton , Tennessee , accused of violating a state law. His alleged crime was teaching the theory of evolution to his class in this state. Williams Jennings Bryan was the prosecutor supporting a state law mandating teaching only the religious doctrine ("Man is of Divine creation") and advocating complete rejection to teaching Darwin 's theory of human evolution in Tennessee schools. Mr. Scopes was defended by Clarence Darrow, a famous trial attorney of his time. Of course, in the social climate of 1925, Scopes was convicted and sentenced to a moderate fine. Eventually; due partially to the worldwide publicity the trial received, the anti-evolution statues were repealed and struck from state law. Tennessee society had evolved to the point of intellectual acceptance that the origin of Man set forth in Biblical passages was not the only explanation of Man's creation. The counsels in what would become commonly known as "the Scopes Monkey Trial" argued their respective sides of the then controversial issue, fueled by their individual beliefs.

Like both counsels in that noted case, I'm arguing today about an issue I feel strongly about, as it involves the pinnacle of human growth. At issue is the right of the mind to grow, while the body it resides in lives in a negative prison environment. My future ability to seek and realize intellectual growth will be determined by the outcome of this issue here or in the appeal courts. I view the expression of the opposition position as a litmus test of a state government department to determine if prisoners will docilely stand by and allow a fundamental constitutional right to be arbitrarily usurped. I believe the First Amendment of the US Constitution (right to free speech) was written specifically to protect all citizens' rights to seek information and to grow intellectually without abusive government interference, government restriction of those rights, or government creation of prior restraints to chill the ability to seek and receive information, via policies denying access to literature, printed word, and thought. I believe the First Amendment was specifically written to protect freedom of religion, provide and protect freedom of speech, and to allow for a free exchange of ideas among citizens in a democracy, which is precisely how the United States portrays itself to the world. I cannot recognize any distinction between the minds of those free and those imprisoned when it comes to seeking information, learning from one another, and exchanging ideas. A quest for intellectual growth is a continual, ongoing, lifelong pursuit of intelligent people.

Many issues and interpretations of issues are important to our lives. Topping the list are issues dealing with the quality of life and ability to grow as human beings. Sometimes government actions reveal that the government holds a different interpretation of our rights and issues affecting them, from those living under its jurisdiction-interpretations often influenced by political trends. I have found in life, though, there are at least two sides to everything: all issues, all stories. To be?lieve otherwise would be to accept as gospel truth four great lies of our time:

"Y2K will change life as we love t!" "The check is in the mail."

"This is 100% guaranteed to work as advertised."

"Hello, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you."

I believe I have a fundamental right to exchange ideas freely with free individuals of the same political preference as my own. My side is. I believe I have a fundamental right to receive printed material dealing with my choice of political ideology.

When I hear of acts of civil disobedience, riots by demonstrators, or force employed by law enforcement authorities responding to demonstrators, I'm curious about what caused those on opposing sides of an issue to clash. I want to learn about all sides of the equation, to learn about the catalyst which escalated a heated situation to the point of violence. Only after all the facts are in can I then make an informed decision or choice of which side of the issue I most identify with. I refuse to accept one side over the other without knowing all the details. I refuse to display blind acceptance of any side of any issue about which I am not knowledgeable. I refuse to accept that I am expected to subscribe to the reasoning of one side and not be permitted to acquaint myself with that of the other. Isn't this what a democracy is supposed to be about-the freedom to seek knowledge, to learn, to choose according to our own dictates, without government acts of persecution against us? In my legal case (Thompson vs. Campbell, Commissioner, Tennessee Dept. of Corrections), the state government defendant wishes to have a distinction made between the rights of prisoners and the rights of the free to embrace particular politics, and wishes to restrict access to political literature abrasive to prison officials. When government at any level, anywhere, in the streets or prisons, can dictate to individuals which politics they may or may not subscribe to, then democracy has gone the way of the dinosaurs. There is not a wall between the [ U.S. ] Constitution and prisoners. Prisoners are sup?posed to have all the rights of ordinary citizens except those expressly removed from them due to imprisonment. Prisoners' ability to think and choose is not removed when prison gates close behind them, exiling them from society and separating them from family and friends. Some prisoners even retain the right to vote (in certain US states), further buttressing a legitimate argument that the government should not favor one form of politics over another among its captives.

As my choice of political ideology, I embrace anarchism. My choice of politics is abrasive and repugnant to prison officials. I do not embrace it from a desire to destroy, but because I'm an optimist. I believe people are capable of governing themselves. Maybe I'm a dreamer, but if I am, I have a right to dream, if that is indeed the case! In the absence of government as we know it, I don't believe the worst in people would evidence itself; rather, the best would rise to the surface. Let me briefly explain the politics of anarchism. Anarchism is a political preference taught on college campuses as an alternative political ideology. It is an old political ideology with roots in the working class and great thinkers. The works of Michel Bakunin, Pierre Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin (his Conquest of Bread and Bakunin's God and the State are required reading in civil or government courses at some colleges), James Godwin, Malatesta, Colin Ward, Rudolph Rocker, George Woodock. Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman are but a few of the great anarchist authors. Contrary to popular belief and media sensationalism, anarchism does not advocate running wild in the streets committing mayhem, performing acts of terrorism, creating all manner of chaos, throwing bombs or perpetrating senseless acts of violence. Anarchism means people taking responsibility for themselves and others instead of paying the government gang to do it for them! There are as many diverse views of anarchism as there are anarchists. Some label themselves as federated anarchists, others as anarcho-primitivists, anarco-syndicalists, anarchist purists, etc.

What is being put to the test in my case is an idea, a political theory, a political ideology. Logically during this trial, much will be put forward by the defendants about certain kinds of printed material in a prison inmate's possession posing a perceived "threat to orderly operation and security of the institution." My opinion is that such an argument is hogwash! If prisoners' possession of such printed material and their being allowed to discuss political issues with others of like persuasion through the mail pose a legitimate threat of any kind to the order or security of any state penal institution, then I wish to hear specific facts of such incidents, not merely vague innuendos or profound judgmental proclamations replete with "might," "may," or "could." I want to see or hear documented proof of incidents, not conjectures, exaggerations or questionable speculations. I want to hear facts, not word-play smoke screens! It may be espoused that the absence of documented incidents is in fact because such literature is banned. I see something inherently faulty in such logic. I could respond with a comparable quantum leap of logic which makes as much sense to me. E.g., I could say I've invented a mustard plaster I wear on my chest, repugnant to Tibetan yaks, and the fact I haven't been charged and trampled by a yak is my proof the mustard plaster works! My example takes the same license with the truth that state officials do on anarchistic literature posing a threat. Hopefully readers won't believe my mustard plaster story or their faulty logic either! Show facts, not conjecture.

Let me give you some facts. The political theory of anarchism articulates a more or less coherent framework for understanding why resistance is to be expected. Reacting with irritation or even outrage to the exercise of obvious arbitrary authority is what I consider natural and human.

Anarchism entails a relentless critique of power, whether power derives from a legitimate or an illegitimate source. I think we all realize power frowns on criticism. Resistance to the arbitrary capricious nature of authority and power is older than the theory of anarchism. Those who directly suffer oppressive conditions are those who understandably resist. They do not need a poem, magazine, book, newspaper or letter to provide inspiration for resistance. Nothing anyone writes can compel prisoners to want their captors to behave humanely; compel them to accept their suffering at the hands of those with power and desire to control their every activity. No printed word can incite people with common sense and intelligence to do anything they don't want to do in the first place. The sole reason for people become "incited" is the reality of their individual belief system being affronted, the strength of their convictions put to the test on a specific issue, and their sincere dedication to the beliefs they dearly hold when confronted by adversity. Strongly-held, sincere belief and conviction are the sole factors that prompt people to whatever action-or inaction-they decide to display in specific circumstances and situations. I have been inspired to action by only two specific texts: the Bible and the Constitution of the United States . That inspiration led me to file my lawsuit (Thompson v. Campbell ).

Tennessee Department of Corrections has banned, by policy, receipt of anarchism literature by prisoners. Their decision to ban this literature in their prisons is ironic because such literature is not banned in some other state and federal prisons nor from general public consumption. Nor is this ban uniformly or consistently enforced in Tennessee prisons. This inconsistency lends credibility to my argument the definition of "anarchy"' as set forth in the Tennessee Dept. of Corrections' mail policy is overly broad and vague, to the extent that reasonable people can, and do, differ on its meaning. I know this is true, as animal rights and environmental movement publications have also been rejected due to "anarchy" content even though the policy does not state anything about this particular type of printed matter. I know of a specific case where a prison mailroom employee looked at arriving printed matter on animal rights, instinctively knew or suspected it was anarchist material,

and declared it contraband. Further, anarchism publications denied to me were received by another Tenn. prisoner, who attested to this fact in a sworn statement. It is ironic that anarchism literature isn't deemed a threat to public security in the free community beyond prison confines. Why is it only in a system of incarceration, with people under close scrutiny, supervision and surveillance, that such a threat is perceived? In my opinion, Tenn. DoC's administrators blame anarchism literature for the failure of their own policies. That is ridiculous.

Power is based on perception, self-image, obfuscation and mystification. On a day-to-day basis most of us are not controlled by laws. We know laws exist, but they don't control our every action. We are instead controlled by intelligence, common sense, habit and a concept of right vs. wrong. It could be observed that we live in a symbolic fog, unconsciously and uncritically obeying laws and rules we had no part in making, that don't always serve what we believe are our best or community interests. Power is self-hypnosis; it is our selves used against us, and sometimes govern?ments abuse that power-history is resplendent with examples. I am writing here about what I con?sider, think and believe to be an arbitrary abuse of power. I believe I have a legitimate interest in receiving political literature of my choice, embracing a politic of my choice, and communicating freely with those with similar beliefs as long as I am not breaking the law in any way. I believe I should be allowed to communicate with an anarchist group that provides legal information through raising funds for law books or searching out requested legal decisions on the Internet at resource sites for use by anarchist prisoners. It is the Anarchist Prisoners Legal Aid Network. I fail to see any other legal aid organizations symbolically knocking on the prison gates, offering help through the mail.

State government has care, custody and control of my body 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. My movement is monitored. I am told when to eat, sleep, shower; all aspects of my life are controlled to some varying extent. All but my mind is monitored, but even there it appears an ap?parent desire exists to control my thoughts, to deny me access to ideas, to not only stifle free speech but stomp on it. Why? Because of fear of an idea, a political ideology abrasive and repugnant to prison officials. There appears to exist fear of inmate possession of a political idea and evidently a fear of people communicating about it! One defendant stated under oath that approx. 10 Tennessee Dept. of Correction prisoners, out of some 22-25,000 total, receive animal rights and environmental movement literature. This is a percentage of those receiving such materials of 1/2200th or 1/2500th? of the entire state's prison population. Hardly a significant threat! With that small percentage, it sounds like much ado about nothing! The tiny number receiving these kinds of printed matter really doesn't matter. It is the idea which is feared.  But in trying to crush it by denying printed material, prison officials ignore one of life's truths: the fastest way to make a malicious rumor-or an idea-spread like wildfire is to attempt to suppress it!

The political ideology aspect of the trial which could emerge from Thompson vs. Campbell boils down to state officials' fear of thought. Thought! As 1984-Orwellian and absurd as that sounds in these enlightened millennium times! Unlike Mr. Scopes' teaching evolutionist theory, I don't

teach anarchism nor discuss it with others unless asked a specific question. I was taught as a child that a person's religion and politics are private matters. I simply want to be permitted to sit quietly and read about anarchism, animal rights issues and environmental matters, to enjoy freedom of thought. I simply want to be able to communicate with like-minded people. If I engage in criminal activity via the mail, I see nothing wrong with law enforcement authorities prosecuting me. However, I don't wish to be persecuted nor punished due to my politics by having my incoming mail withheld due to a ridiculous fear of political ideology.

Obscene Publication Issue

Should Thompson v. Campbell come to trial, things may be said about publications containing nudity referred to as "obscene." I believe the proper testing guidelines set by the US Supreme Court to determine if a publication lacks as a whole serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value are not followed before the arbitrary rejection of entire publications. In all likelihood, you will hear mention of inferred child pornography, e.g. a nudist publication from Canada . This magazine, which includes a semi-monthly column I write sometimes, contains photographs which may feature a child with its parents at a nudist camp. These photos are not meant to appeal to any type of sexual deviant. I am not convicted of a sex offense nor am I a child molester. We all know not every depiction of nudity is obscene. Not every photo with a nude child is child pornography. If that were the case, my late parents would have to be considered child pornographers, as our family album contained a picture of me at age three in a derby hat and little else, which was later used as a weapon to embarrass me in front of my freckle-faced dates as a teenager. If the standard is that any photo with child nudity in it is pornographic, then many popular women's monthly magazines with body tale or skin lotion ads would have to be deemed child pornography. Some of the publications denied me were male-oriented material. One of several magazines rejected from an English distributor was a "Hustler" magazine. Ironically, "Hustler" was specifically mentioned in the US Supreme Court decision that determined the obscenity issue test and how it is to be handled by prison administrators. Evidently the Tennessee Dept. of Corrections has either never read the high court's decision or refuses to comply with it. It doesn't matter why it is not followed, but only that it is not followed to the letter to the law.

"Publishers-Only" Rule

Tennessee DoC's mail policy contains a "publishers only" restriction on receipt of public?cations which stipulates that no individual or family member may send any kind of publication to an inmate. All publications must be sent directly from the publisher or in the policy's words, "a recognized distributor." No provision is made for receipt of used books or for items sent by small not-for-profit distributors, self-publishers, or prisoner book services. A Tennessee prisoner theoretically would not be allowed to receive the family Bible if sent by a family member. I don't believe there is a legitimate penological or neutral government objective associated with the publishers-only rule. Logically, it would take a competent Tennessee DoC mail room employee the same amount of time to inspect a new book for contraband as it would the same book in used farm. At trial, the State might raise inspection-time-burden arguments regarding mail room personnel if publications were permitted freely from any source. Or the extra burden of expense to hire additional mail room staff just to handle the massive increase in mail volume if used printed material were allowed. Both arguments would be smoke screens. To make such determinations, the usual process is to draw facts from an existing situation, not manufacturing "facts" to fit or avoid a potential situation. I would imagine the same quantity of books and magazines would arrive, and it would certainly be cheaper for the senders, as they would not be forced to order new books nor pay inflated bookstore prices to have books mailed from these businesses to prisoners. I would hazard a guess that Tenn. DoC's denying books and publications from nonprofit distributors, but allowing receipt of books and publications from for-profit publishers and bookstores, infringes on my First Amendment rights and guarantees.

In our daily lives, what do we do when we encounter fundamentally unfair or unjust situa?tions perpetrated against citizens by government at any level? We sometimes speak out against them. Sometimes the little self-serving message of government to us goes through our minds, reminding us that we cannot fight city hall and win. More often than not, we sadly shake our heads in disgust and symbolic defeat, catalog the situation as another government abuse we can do nothing about, and go on with the affairs of our lives. In this situation, though, one must realize that often usurping consti?tutional rights of citizens at large begins with acts against the defenseless, minorities, homeless, prisoners, disenfranchised. If government seizures of constitutional rights are not noticed and not strongly contested, then the citizens at large have legitimized the government's acts, which often creates a progression of lost rights and constitutional guarantees. If society stands for the chipping

away of rights of those at its fringes without an outcry, then it is only a matter of time until the rights of those at the heart of society are adversely impacted. Government concedes nothing once taken, gives nothing back, and restores nothing seized to its original state of being.

I ask you to ask yourselves if you wish government to decide what you can read? To deter?mine what political ideology you can embrace? To decide what you can watch? What is obscene and what is not? Take the first step to protect your own constitutional rights by declaring that Tennessee DoC's mail policy is violative of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, one of the most admired documents in the world,. Protect your right to embrace a political theory, a political ideology, of your choice by protecting my rights, under the Constitution, to the same thing. There is a barrier between society and me as a convicted felon, a razor-wire-topped barrier. I ask here today that you not aid the government in creating a barrier between me, a prisoner, and the Constitution of the United States by condoning the arbitrary restrictions placed on my First Amendment rights. I ask you to protect your own First Amendment rights by protecting the rights of the least among you. I want to grow intellectually and as a human being, to expand my horizon beyond prison walls, to be permitted to freely exchange ideas with others of like political inclination and belief as long as I violate no law.

If we are a nation of laws, then hold me to that standard, the same standard you live by, and nothing less. I ask only that the same standard be applied to me which applies to you and which governs how you conduct your life. I ask that you do not permit the taking of my rights here today by government until I have violated that standard, until I have broken the law. In this nation it was once decreed that due to the hue of a person's skin, that person had no rights, protections or guarantees under the Constitution. This was said to the people by the government. This nation evolved past such barbaric practices as slavery except in its prisons, with involuntary servitude. In a prison environment, prisoners are told when to eat, shower, sleep, get up, work, and go outside to recreation-if they are even permitted outside rec. You may talk but you'd better watch what you say and not talk too loud, or you can be charged with creating a disturbance. Everything in a penal setting is regulated, which is understandable to retain control and maintain order. Everything but thought is controlled, and this mail police of the Tennessee DoC is clearly, blatantly designed to achieve the goal of Orwellian "1984" thought control, to turn prisons into political reeducation camps following the defunct Soviet and Chinese examples. Sound absurd? No! The mail policy contested attempts to regulate thought, restrict and chill access to ideas, and set a standard that the First Amendment of the Constitution does not apply to prisoners when it comes to restricting politics abrasive to prison officials and opinions critical of government.

I am sincerely sorry prison officials have such delicate feelings and personas that they can be grievously injured by criticism contained in any printed word. Nevertheless, I ask you to protect your rights and mine by sending government in general and Tenn. DoC in particular the message that you believe the Constitution of the United States was meant to establish, protect and guarantee the rights of all-prisoner and free citizen alike-and especially from government's unnecessary seizure of those rights. Vote your conscience. Thank you.