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Fifth Circuit Holds Louisiana Prisons Can’t Ban Nation of Islam Newspaper

In 2005, Louisiana prison officials instituted a statewide ban on The Final Call, a newspaper published by the Nation of Islam. The ban was based solely on the content of a statement of beliefs called “The Muslim Program,” located on the last page of each issue of the paper. However, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that objectionable language in “The Muslim Program” does not justify a blanket ban on The Final Call.

With the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, Henry Leonard, a Louisiana state prisoner, filed a federal civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging the ban at the David Wade Correctional Center. The district court found that the ban was an exaggerated response to security concerns, since prison officials were unable to show that any violent acts had been linked to The Final Call. Therefore, the court held the prison could not restrict or censor Leonard’s access to the newspaper. [See: PLN, Sept. 2010, p.11].

Prison officials appealed.

On November 10, 2011, the Fifth Circuit issued an unpublished ruling agreeing with the district court’s reasoning. “While we do not agree that ‘The Muslim Program’ is free of racially inflammatory language, the record here does not justify [banning the newspaper] under circumstances where an objectionable page could be deleted and where this page has been included in all prior issues of the newspaper and is and always has been available to [Leonard].”

The district court’s judgment was affirmed. See: Leonard v. State of Louisiana, 449 Fed.Appx. 386 (5th Cir. 2011). The defendants filed a petition for writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court on May 17, 2012, which remains pending.

The ACLU of Louisiana is currently pursuing a similar lawsuit concerning the ban on The Final Call at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, on behalf of state prisoner Shawn Anderson. That case, which was held in abeyance pending the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Leonard’s suit, remains pending as of the end of Sept. 2012. See: Anderson v. State of Louisiana, U.S.D.C. (M.D. La.), Case No. 3-09-cv-00075-JJB-DLD.

Another lawsuit related to censorship of The Final Call was settled by Virginia prison officials in November 2010. [See: PLN, June 2011, p.46].

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