Somin in NY Times: Restriction Should be Based on Evidence

Professor Ilya Somin told The New York Times that Wisconsin prison officials' actions in banning inmates from playing a popular video game were reminiscent of a 1980s media frenzy over the presumed ill effects of gaming.

A lawsuit filed by an inmate arguing his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated by the prison system's ban on the game Dungeons & Dragons was rejected by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In its ruling, the court acknowledged that there was no evidence of prisoners being moved to violence by such games but ruled that the prison's decision was "rationally related" to legitimate goals of prison administration.

"Ideally, you should really have more evidence that there is a genuine harm before you restrict something," said Somin.

Court Upholds Prison Ban on Dungeons & Dragons, The New York Times, January 27, 2010. By John Schwartz.

"The suit was brought by a prisoner, Kevin T. Singer, who argued that his First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights were violated by the prison's decision to ban the game and confiscate his books and other materials, including a 96-page handwritten manuscript he had created for the game.

"Mr. Singer, 'a D&D enthusiast since childhood,' according to the court's opinion, was sentenced to life in prison in 2002 for bludgeoning and stabbing his sister's boyfriend to death.

"Prison officials said they had banned the game at the recommendation of the prison's specialist on gangs, who said it could lead to gang behavior and fantasies about escape.

"Dungeons & Dragons could 'foster an inmate's obsession with escaping from the real-life correctional environment, fostering hostility, violence and escape behavior,' prison officials said in court. That could make it more difficult to rehabilitate prisoners and could endanger public safety, they said.

"The court, which is based in Chicago, acknowledged that there was no evidence of marauding gangs spurred to their acts of destruction by swinging imaginary mauls, but it ruled nonetheless that the prison's decision was 'rationally related' to legitimate goals of prison administration."

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