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California Prisoner's First Amendment Claim Survives Motion for Summary Judgment

In September 2011, U.S. District Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton issued an order tentatively permitting a California prisoner's First Amendment claim to proceed following the filing of a motion for summary judgment by the defendant prison officials in the case.

In 2009, prisoner Lonnie Perkins filed a civil rights action pro se, alleging that Pelican Bay State Prison officials violated his constitutional rights by, inter alia, prohibiting him from mailing out his autobiography, which contained descriptions of gang-related incidents. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that allowing Perkins to mail out his autobiography would likely serve to promote gang activity.

Citing Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, 413 (1974), the Court noted that while prisoners enjoy a First Amendment right to send mail to non-prisoners, that right may be circumscribed by an important penological interest, so long as the limitation on First Amendment freedoms is no greater than necessary to protect the particular governmental interest involved. The Court further noted that the burden is on prison officials to show that their actions were justified.

In the case before it, the Court held that the defendants had failed to meet their burden. It acknowledged that impeding criminal gang activity is a legitimate penological interest, but -- insofar as defendants had failed to provide the Court with a copy of the autobiography, or a declaration containing a sufficiently extensive description of its contents -- the Court could not determine whether prohibiting Perkins from mailing his autobiography furthered the government's interest in controlling gang activity, or if the prohibition was no more than what was necessary to further that interest.

Although the Court denied defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to Perkins' First Amendment claim, it also gave defendants 30 days to renew their motion. Presumably, if they do so, the defendants will provide the Court with sufficient detail as to the contents of Perkins' autobiography that the Court will be able to resolve the matter more definitively. See: Perkins v. Chrones, Case No. C 09-5855 PJH (PR) (U.S.D.C., N.D. Cal, 2011)

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Related legal case

Perkins v. Chrones