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Prisoners Have Right to Send Letters to News Media

The First Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a prisoner has a right to
send letters to the news media. This action was filed by two prisoners at
the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Walpole, challenging the
prison's total ban on prisoner letters to the news media concerning prison
affairs. The district court entered relief for the prisoners, but left
prison officials with discretion to refuse letters that present a risk to
prison security or rehabilitation of prisoners. Both parties appealed,
the prison contending the total ban should be upheld and the prisoners
contending the relief should be more widely drawn.

The First Circuit said the condition of prisons is an important matter of
public policy that prisoners and their wardens are particularly interested
in and particularly knowledgeable of. The prisoners' right to speak is
enhanced by the right of the public to know. While the court concluded
prisoners retain the right to send letters to the news media concerning
prison matters, the Court had to address the officials' contentions that
letters to the press would be detrimental to the security and good order
of the institution" and that a prison community is not the ideal setting
for impassioned debate. Aggressive feelings and grudges run high not only
against society in general and correction personnel but among inmates

The Court found that the officials' argument presupposes that
outgoing letters to the news media will automatically result in publishing
of the letter or reports that will be transmitted back into the prison,
thereby causing an antagonistic atmosphere. The Court said the better
policy is to allow prisoners to have unhampered ability to send letters to
the news media and then censor any incoming publication that may be a
threat to the good order of the prison.

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded for the district court to
enter more narrowly tailored relief. See: Nolan v. Fitzpatrick, 431 F.2d
545 (1st Cir. 1971).

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Related legal case

Nolan v. Fitzpatrick

Nolan v. Fitzpatrick, 451 F.2d 545 (1st Cir. 11/04/1971)


[2] Nos. 71-1156, 71-1166

[3] 451 F.2d 545

[4] Decided: November 4, 1971.


[6] Aldrich, Chief Judge, McEntee and Coffin, Circuit Judges.

[7] Author: Coffin

[8] COFFIN, Circuit Judge.

[9] Plaintiffs Nolan and LeFebvre, two prisoners confined at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Walpole, have brought this action to challenge the constitutionality of that prison's total ban on prisoner letters to the news media concerning prison affairs. Plaintiffs have exhausted their administrative remedies under state law and seek a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, invoking the jurisdictional provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1343 and the substantive provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

[10] The district court granted a declaratory judgment and issued an injunction under which prison authorities retain wide discretion. The authorities may refuse to mail a letter if they "have reasonable ground (not necessarily probable cause) to believe that the contents of the letter or the addressee of the letter presents a risk (a) to the security of the public, the prison administration, or the prison population, or (b) to the observance of rules of behavior by prisoners, or (c) to the rehabilitation of prisoners * * *."326 F. Supp. 209, 217, 218 (D.Mass.1971). Both parties appeal, the officials contending that the total ban should be upheld and the prisoners contending that restrictions, if any, must be drawn more narrowly.

[11] At the outset, we note that the plaintiffs do not challenge the right of prison authorities to read all letters to the press and to inspect them for contraband or escape plans. Nor do they here assert a right to correspond with the news media about matters of public policy or personal affairs unrelated to the prisons. They claim simply the right to send to the media letters concerning prison management, treatment of offenders, and personal grievances arising within the prison. Plaintiff Nolan wrote seven such letters, and plaintiff LeFebvre wrote one; all were returned by the Walpole censor. The following letter, addressed to the Editor of the Boston Record American, is illustrative:

[12] "Dear Sir,

[13] I am writing this letter in regards to an article which I read in your newspaper concerning the work strike at Walpole State Prison. 1/15 [illegible]

[14] I want to thank you for not minimizing our grievances and I would like to point out that the situation in this prison is a great deal more serious than you indicate. Contrary to your statement that 'the Superintendent agreed to discuss our grievances.' This information is incorrect.

[15] The work strike started on Monday afternoon (1/11/71) & continued until late Thursday afternoon 1/14/71.

[16] If you would like to know more about the reasons behind that work strike & other such trouble that has taken place in this prison during these past 10 months, then please contact the above named attorney (482-1390).

[17] Yours,

[18] Dan Nolan /s/

[19] Prisoner, Walpole"

[20] Plaintiffs make First Amendment claims under the heads of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to petition. It is clear that federal courts may no longer refuse to hear such claims. The oft-cited proposition that "Lawful incarceration brings about the necessary withdrawal or limitation of many privileges and rights, a retraction justified by the considerations underlying our penal system", Price v. Johnston,334 U.S. 266, 285, 68 S. Ct. 1049, 1060, 92 L. Ed. 1356 (1948), must be read in the light of its equally oft-cited contrapositive, that "A prisoner retains all the rights of an ordinary citizen except those expressly, or by necessary implication, taken from him by law", Coffin v. Reichard,143 F.2d 443, 445 (6th Cir. 1944), cert. denied, 325 U.S. 887, 65 S. Ct. 1568, 89 L. Ed. 2001 (1945).

[21] Since the challenged total ban does deprive prisoners of all opportunity to write letters to the press, we must, as a threshold matter, determine whether one's freedom to write to the press survives his incarceration. While to our knowledge no court has addressed the precise question, many have concluded that various other First Amendment rights survive.*fn1 The right to free exercise of religion has given rise to most of the litigation. In Cooper v. Pate, 378 U.S. 546, 84 S. Ct. 1733, 12 L. Ed. 2d 1030 (1964), the Supreme Court held that a prisoner stated a cause of action in alleging that he was denied permission to purchase certain religious publications and was, because of his religious beliefs, denied other privileges enjoyed by other prisoners. While Cooper could conceivably be thought to be grounded in either free exercise of religion or equal protection, it has consistently been interpreted as proceeding on free exercise grounds. E. g., Brown v. Peyton,437 F.2d 1228, 1230 (4th Cir. 1971); Walker v. Blackwell, 411 F.2d 23, 24 (5th Cir. 1969); Long v. Parker, 390 F.2d 816, 820 n. 17 (3d Cir. 1968). Indeed, the language of these cases suggests the survival of First Amendment rights generally. 437 F.2d at 1231; 411 F.2d at 24. Similar language was used in an opinion holding that prisoners had the right to receive Fortune News, a (non-religious) newsletter published by former inmates and often critical of prison authorities. Fortune Society v. McGinnis,319 F. Supp. 901, 904 (S.D.N.Y.1970).

[22] We need not adopt the broad principle that a prisoner retains all First Amendment rights to conclude, as we do, that he retains the right to send letters to the press concerning prison matters.*fn2 In so concluding, we rely primarily on the fact that the condition of our prisons is an important matter of public policy as to which prisoners are, with their wardens, peculiarly interested and peculiarly knowledgeable. The argument that the prisoner has the right to communicate his grievances to the press and, through the press, to the public is thus buttressed by the invisibility of prisons to the press and the public: the prisoners' right to speak is enhanced by the right of the public to hear.*fn3 This does not depend upon a determination that wardens are unsympathetic to the need to improve prison conditions. But even a warden who pushes aggressively for reforms or larger appropriations within his department and before appropriate officials and legislative committees may understandably not feel it prudent to push for more public laundering of institutional linen.

[23] That prisoners themselves have recently begun to realize the importance of a public awareness to any real prospect of change is increasingly demonstrated. The frequency of striking and rioting in the prisons may well derive, at least in part, from this realization. Often, one of the prisoner "demands" in the course of a strike or riot is that press access to the prison be broadened in some respect.*fn4 Concurrently, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections has taken practical steps which indicate a recognition of the need for more communication between prisoners and the press. By an administrative regulation, the Department now permits newsmen to visit prisoners under most circumstances.*fn5

[24] Having concluded that prisoners retain the right to send letters to the news media concerning prison matters, we must still address defendants' argument that state interests unrelated to the suppression of speech justify the restrictions here imposed. The doctrinal framework for our inquiry must come from United States v. O'Brien,391 U.S. 367, 88 S. Ct. 1673, 20 L. Ed. 2d 672 (1968), in which the Supreme Court rationalized the variety of doctrines which it had in the past employed where the government interest was unrelated to the suppression of free expression. Under O'Brien, the state's burden in the present case is to establish that the regulation "furthers an important or substantial governmental interest" and that "the incidental restriction on alleged First Amendment freedoms is no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest."391 U.S. at 377, 88 S. Ct. at 1679.

[25] The ban might be thought supportable either as serving the purpose of prison administration or as implementing the purposes of the criminal law generally. Defendants here stress purposes of the first sort. They contend that permitting letters to the press "would be detrimental to the security and good order of the institution" and that "A prison community is not the ideal setting for dispassioned debate. Aggressive feelings and grudges run high not only against society in general and correction personnel, but also between inmates themselves."

[26] Since the state interest in insuring the security of the guards and the prisoners is surely an "important or substantial" one, we must consider whether the ban's restrictive effect on the First Amendment rights of the prisoners and the public "is no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest." This entails a closer inspection of the security interest. One aspect of the alleged threat to security is the expectation that prisoners will write inflammatory letters to the press, that these letters will return to the prison as letters to the editor or news stories or editorials, and that, finally, they will cause fellow prisoners to strike or riot. We note first that none of the letters written by the plaintiffs in this case was even arguably of this sort -- a total ban is clearly not necessary. Furthermore, prisoners are already entitled to receive newspapers critical of prison authorities. If it be thought that the effect of criticism from within the prison is likely to be greater than that of criticism by outsiders, the short answer is that prisoners are quite well able to proselytize directly. In any event, we have no evidence to the contrary.

[27] The most that can reasonably be said is that, depending upon conditions in the prison when the letter or news story based on it returns to the prison, some particularly inflammatory letters may create a "clear and present danger" of violence or breach of security. In that extreme case, prison officials can cope with the situation by refusing to admit the dangerous issue of the newspaper to the prison rather than by refusing to mail the letter in the first instance. The rule against mailing is constitutionally infirm in that it permits officials to withhold letters from the mails on the basis of speculation as to what conditions in the prison will be when and if the letter or article derived from it returns.

[28] The First Amendment prohibition against prior restraints applies with even more than its usual force here. In Cantwell v. Connecticut,310 U.S. 296, 60 S. Ct. 900, 84 L. Ed. 1213 (1940), the Supreme Court explained that "When clear and present danger of riot, disorder [etc.] appears, the power of the state to prevent or punish is obvious. Equally obvious is it that a State may not unduly suppress free communication of views, religious or other, under the guise of conserving desirable conditions."310 U.S. at 308, 60 S. Ct. at 905. The truism about an ounce of prevention helps little in this field, for the prior restraint doctrine is customarily invoked despite the fact that the state's bar against expressing views to an audience may well be a more effective way of protecting public order than would subsequent punishment.*fn6 Here, since the communication which allegedly creates the danger to security does so only when it returns to the prison, the regulation against mailing is, in a sense, prior to a prior restraint in that it cuts off expression even before the tension between free expression and order has come into being. Beyond this, it unnecessarily cuts off prisoner speech to a quite different and larger audience, the public.