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Eleventh Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Challenge to Florida DOC Ban on Pen Pal Requests

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court order dismissing a Florida prisoner’s civil rights action that challenged a prison policy which prohibited him from sending letters to churches and ministers requesting prayer partners and pen pals.

The federal lawsuit was filed in the Northern District of Florida by state prisoner R. Casper Adamson, who is “a converted Southern Baptist.” Adamson attempted to mail thirteen letters to Baptist churches and ministers to request “prayer partners and religious pen pals.”

Prison officials intercepted the letters and refused to mail them. They contended that Florida Dept. of Corrections (FDOC) policy prohibited the use of “correspondence privileges to solicit or otherwise commercially advertise for money, goods, or services,” which “includes advertising for pen pals.” See: FL Admin. Code, Chapter 33.210.101(9).

Adamson argued the policy violated his First Amendment right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech. He also alleged it infringed on his “right to marry by preventing him from looking for a girlfriend and fiancée.”

The U.S. District Court found the FDOC policy constitutional, holding that it furthered “an important or substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of expression.” That interest was identified as “the security and the prevention of inmate fraud and harassment of the unwitting public that has resulted in money order scams and other criminal activities.”

The Eleventh Circuit, however, found the FDOC’s motion to dismiss provided no explanation for the challenged policy. Instead, the district court relied on authorities from jurisdictions other than Florida to support what it perceived to be the governmental interest served by the policy. While that conclusion might ultimately prove correct, the appellate court held that without the benefit of discussion of the policy’s purpose by the parties or Florida-based authority, dismissal was premature at this early stage of the litigation.

As such, the district court’s order of dismissal was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. Adamson had also challenged the FDOC policy on the grounds it was an “invalid exercise of legislative authority” under state law. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the holding that the policy was permitted under § 944.09, Fla. Statutes. See: Adamson v. McDonough, 259 Fed. Appx. 206 (11th Cir. 2007) (unpublished).

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Related legal case

Adamson v. McDonough