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Seventh Circuit: Wisconsin DOC Mail Ban On Commercially Published Photos Of Celebrities Upheld

by John E. Dannenberg

The Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WDOC) policy that bans prisoners from receiving in the mail commercially published photographs of “celebrity figures, movie stars, models or other[s] that are produced for sale or distribution.”

Green Bay Correctional Institute prisoner Jevon Jackson is a fan of television actress Jennifer Aniston. However, when he ordered a commercially produced photo of her to pin up in his cell, it was banned by prison mailroom personnel who had begun enforcing the then-new (September 2006) WDOC prison regulation No. 309.20.1. Jackson had ordered such photos before, and had them in his cell. So, possession of such photos was not the issue. Rather, WDOC’s angst was over the impact on mailroom staff to inspect and process such items. Jackson asserted a First Amendment violation, exhausted his administrative remedies, and sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The U.S. District Court (W.D. Wis.) granted WDOC’s motion for summary judgment, which Jackson appealed.

The question was analyzed under the four-part U.S. Supreme Court test in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). The first, and dispositive, factor was whether the state was reasonably asserting a “valid, rational connection between the regulation and the legitimate government interest put forward to justify it.

The court focused on this factor and agreed with WDOC that their claimed economic interest in saving staff resources was legitimate. Jackson had argued hypothetically that, hoping to score a magazine photo of Ms. Aniston, he could legally subscribe to multiple magazines (incurring greater mailroom labor) in lieu of ordering individual photographs.
However, the court bought into WDOC’s assertion that it was easier for them to process magazines arriving from approved publishers than it was to inspect individual commercial photos from non-standard sources. Because the court found that Jackson could reasonably expect to find pictures of Aniston in magazines, his First Amendment rights were preserved. The court accepted WDOC’s defense that they processed 1,500 pieces of mail every day, and could not reasonably afford the added cost of processing the specialty photos Jackson sought.

Finally, the court analyzed the cost-reducing options of a cap on total volume of prisoner mail versus restricting a specified form of mail. But the court found that Jackson had
not provided evidence that the cost savings from the former would offset those of the latter. [Note: This was the “weak reed” in Jackson’s case. PLN has won similar mail-volume cases, but only after extensive discovery demonstrating the lack of real impact on prison resources.] Here, eliminating just one segment of mail was found to be consistent with saving staff resources. Accordingly, the court concluded that Jackson had failed his burden to show a genuine issue of material fact as would be needed to defeat summary judgment, and, affirmed the district court below. See: Jackson v. Frank, 509 F.3d 389 (7th Cir. 2007).

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Related legal case

Jackson v. Frank