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New York District Court Rules on Prison Mail Issue

The United States District Court, Southern District of New York, ruled for the plaintiffs in November 1970, granting a preliminary injunction lifting New York State prison officials’ ban on the newsletter, Fortune News, published by the Fortune Society. Plaintiffs Roger Champen and Nathan Wright brought a §1983 claim against the New York Commissioner of Correction, Paul McGinnis, and their respective prison superintendents on behalf of themselves and all other prisoners similarly situated. The claim alleged denial of their First Amendment rights.

The newsletter, Fortune News, is the monthly publication of the Fortune Society, a New York based non-profit organization that professes as primary concern promotion of public awareness of life and conditions in America’s prisons. The defendants banned the newsletter because, according to them, Fortune News and the Society’s speakers did not reflect the truth concerning conditions in state prisons. Defendants furthermore offered no substantive evidence that the newsletter would interfere with or be disruptive of prison discipline, administration or security. Defendants’ sole state opposition to the instant motion is that the plaintiffs have not established that they are entitled to preliminary injunctive relief, and that plaintiffs’ motion cannot succeed on its own merits.

The court disagreed, and on the most fundamental of basis: incarceration does not strip a person of his or her rights, especially preferred freedoms like Constitutional rights, alleged violations of which being subject to close judicial scrutiny. The court ruled that only a compelling state interest centering on prison security or a clear and present danger of a breach of prison discipline or some substantial interference with orderly institutional administration can justify curtailment of a prisoner’s Constitutional rights. The court noted that defendants offered none of the above justification for the ban on Fortune News, calling the ban arbitrary. In light of the fact that the same newsletter is allowed in New York City jails, the court noted that not only are plaintiff’s First Amendment rights, but also their Fourteenth Amendment rights of equal protection being trampled thereunder.

The motion for a preliminary injunction was granted. See: Fortune Society v. McGinnis, 319 F. Supp. 901 (D.C. N.Y. 1970) Case No. 70 Civ. 4370

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Related legal case

Fortune Society v. McGinnis