No Dungeons & Dragons in the Dungeon
There’s been some talk in the blogosphere of the Seventh Circuit’s recent ruling upholding a Wisconsin prison’s ban on the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, against a prisoner’s First Amendment challenge. (Note that the ban covers not only the game itself, but also any D & D related publications: novellas, strategy guides, etc.) Here’s one take over at the Volokh Conspiracy, which spurred a series of comments that for some reason merited coverage in the New York Times; Above the Law skewers the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning here. Why the ban? According to the prison warden (as quoted in the opinion), D & D can lead to “fantasy role playing, competitive hostility, violence, addictive escape behaviors, and possible gambling” (p. 4).
From a technical legal standpoint, the Seventh Circuit may have been right to uphold the ban, since the standard for judicial review of prison policies is akin to “rational basis review” — basically, as long as the government can come up with a remotely plausible explanation for a regulation, the court oughtn’t interfere. (Though I’d invite readers to read the opinion and the commentaries linked above, and then see how plausible you actually find the state’s justifications.) And sure, it’s easy enough to joke about a role-playing game that revolves around a weird hybrid of medieval fantasy and Tolkien. (To make this a case, in the words of the New York Times, that’s just about “the rights of inmates to nerd out.”) As a policy matter, though, a ban of this type raises questions that go straight to the heart of the entire prison project: What, exactly, are we trying to accomplish when we lock people up? Elie Mystal, in the ATL post linked above, suggests the D & D ban is just about revenge:
It’s not about rehabilitation, it’s not about security, it’s about old-school vengeance carried out by state actors. He killed somebody, and we as a society found something else he liked that we can take away. So we’re going to take it away. It’s Christopher Lloyd playing a Klingon in Star Trek 3 telling Kirk he won’t beam up Spock “because you wish it.”
And, as Ilya Somin points out at Volokh, once you start going down this road of banning conceivably “dangerous” material, it’s hard to see where you’d stop:
Obviously, almost any hobby or reading material might lead people to become divorced from reality, or in rare cases commit suicide. And disturbed individuals could potentially “act out” a crime based on a scenario in almost any film or literary work. Should prisons ban The Count of Monte Cristo on the grounds that it might encourage escape attempts?