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Federal Court Finds Nation of Islam Publication Not Racially Inflammatory

by David M. Reutter

On March 31, 2010, a Louisiana U.S. District Court held that the denial of access to a religious publication based solely on the inclusion of a section called “The Muslim Program” was a violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The court’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Louisiana prisoner Henry Leonard, who was incarcerated at the David Wade Correctional Center (DWCC). Leonard had been a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI) since 1985. He subscribed to The Final Call, the NOI’s official publication, and first began receiving it at DWCC in October 2005.

Beginning on June 14, 2006, DWCC started rejecting The Final Call because it contained racially inflammatory material that was considered a threat to security. Of greatest concern to prison officials was “The Muslim Program” on the last page of each issue, which includes statements about “What Muslims Want” and “What Muslims Believe.”
Leonard filed suit over the DWCC’s censorship policy.

The district court held that Leonard’s claims were very similar to those raised in Walker v. Blackwell, 411 F.2d 23 (5th Cir. 1969). At issue in that case was Muhammad Speaks, an NOI publication that was the precursor to The Final Call. “The Muslim Program” had appeared in both publications since 1965. In Walker, the Fifth Circuit found that writing “arguably much more controversial than ‘The Muslim Program’” was not racially inflammatory.

As such, the district court said it must find likewise in Leonard’s case. It did so while applying the four-prong test in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). The court held that DWCC’s policy requiring rejection of publications that contain racially inflammatory material did not itself violate the Constitution, but its implementation as applied to Leonard was in conflict with the First Amendment.

DWCC was unable to provide an example of violence or unrest in an institutional setting that could be attributed to The Final Call, and the court found that the “wholesale prohibition of the publication is simply too broad when balanced with the Plaintiff’s right to the free exercise of his religion.”

There was no alternative means for Leonard to practice his religious beliefs, as DWCC does not provide NOI materials and The Final Call is the “primary organ to propagate [the NOI] religion.”

As Leonard had received the publication in the past with no negative impact on guards or other prisoners, the court found there would be minimal impact by allowing him to continue receiving it. Finally, DWCC policy already requires staff to review The Final Call. Continuing to review the publication for inflammatory material other than “The Muslim Program” was a ready alternative that “is not an enormous administrative burden when compared with the Plaintiff’s ability to practice and grow in his religion of choice.”

Accordingly, the district court found the censorship policy at DWCC, as applied, violated Leonard’s First Amendment rights. The court also held that the policy violated RLUIPA because it was not the least restrictive means to further a legitimate governmental interest. Leonard’s motion for summary judgment was therefore granted and prison officials were ordered to let him receive future issues of The Final Call.

Leonard was represented by Shreveport attorney Nelson W. Cameron and the ACLU of Louisiana. See: Leonard v. State of Louisiana, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Louisiana), Case No. 5:07-cv-00813-DEW-MLH; 2010 WL 1285447.

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Related legal case

Leonard v. State of Louisiana