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Fourth Circuit Reverses Muslim Prisoner Mail Restrictions

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded for an evidentiary hearing to determine if Muslim publications were a threat to prison security.

Appellant/Plaintiff Richard X. Brown brought before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in October, 1970, his § 1983 claim for injunctive relief lodged against prison officials for restricting his First Amendment rights. After requiring a written response from prison officials, the district court dismissed Brown’s claim without a hearing and without prejudice.

Brown, a prisoner in Virginia claiming Islamic faith, alleged that he had been denied the periodical Muhammad Speaks, the book Message to the Blackman in America, an Arabic Dictionary and grammar book, and the right to conduct prayer meetings with other Islamic adherents. The district court, relying on case law from the Fourth Circuit Court, held that the censorship was within the discretionary purview of prison officials. The defendants’ written response indicated the denial of rights was a misunderstanding, and that Brown was at liberty to exercise the rights he contested. Damages were held unavailable because plaintiff failed to allege diversity of citizenship. Brown appealed.

The appellant court stressed first that Brown’s civil rights were not forfeit with incarceration and that it is the state’s burden to prove that restriction of rights is necessary to the safety and security of an institution or individuals within the institution. The court concluded that a plenary hearing should be held to determine if the state could justify their position with respect to denial of religious material to Brown.

The case law underlying the district court’s holding was the same case law the Fourth Circuit Court applied in reversing the district court’s decision. The court charged the lower court to ascertain the current state of the periodical’s dogma in a review of a current issue. With respect to Message to the Blackman, the court ordered an inquiry be conducted among those institutions that allow the book to the population to determine its affect upon prison operations.

The court furthermore ordered an evidentiary hearing to resolve the factual dispute that arose between the State’s and Brown’s claims concerning his ordering of Muslim buttons and Arabic language materials.

Finally, the court directed the district court to determine whether the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights were clearly violated and whether plaintiff can show his entitlement to damages.

A dissenting opinion was filed that turned the same case law back to the district court’s viewpoint- mainly that prison administration’s studied policy holds binding weight in this case. See: Brown v. Peyton, 437 F.2d 1228 (4th Cir 1971) Case No. 13797.

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Related legal case

Brown v. Peyton