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Newspaper Ban at Cook County Jail Violates First Amendment

Although courts give broad latitude to corrections officials to restrict access to materials that might negatively impact institutional security, that latitude does not generally extend to blanket bans on newspapers. On July 6, 2015, a federal district court in Chicago held in a summary judgment order that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s policy of prohibiting the delivery of newspapers to prisoners while allowing magazines and books – which are made of the same material as newspapers – violates the First Amendment.

Prisoner Gregory Koger was serving a 300-day sentence at the Cook County Jail and received various magazines and books without incident, but jail authorities rejected his subscription to the Chicago Tribune. Koger alleged in his federal civil rights complaint that “Defendant Dart has promulgated and enforced a constitutionally defective policy that prohibits all inmates at the Cook County Jail from receiving and obtaining any newspapers.” The ban on newspapers had been in effect since 1984.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment; in his response, Dart argued that “(1) newspapers are flammable, (2) they can cause sanitation problems (inmates can use them to clog toilets, and they are issued with greater frequency than other publications, thus increasing the volume of material that must be disposed), (3) newspapers can be fashioned into weapons, using paper mâché, and (4) they can cause violence (inmates may learn the nature of other inmates’ charges or about outside gang activity),” all of which could potentially endanger jail security.

The district court rejected those arguments, noting that “Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution,” and stating “Freedom of speech is not merely freedom to speak; it is also freedom to read.”

The court weighed the four factors set forth in Turner v. Safley and concluded, “The [newspaper ban] is the most extreme response available to the jail; it completely extinguishes an inmate’s ability to exercise his First Amendment right to read newspapers. And it is an exaggerated response to the jail’s security concerns, as there are obvious easy alternatives to an outright ban that would accommodate the right, with de minimis impact on the jail.” Notably, other jails and state and federal prisons did not ban newspapers, and alternate forms of receiving information – such as through books and television – were deemed insufficient.

Koger was released from the Cook County Jail before the summary judgment motion was decided in his favor and thus did not obtain injunctive relief, but received a declaratory judgment and $1 in nominal damages. On August 19, 2015, the district court awarded $1,025.34 in costs, and two months later the court granted attorney fees in the amount of $110,163 plus an additional $232.70 in expenses. See: Koger v. Dart, 114 F.Supp.3d 572 (N.D. Ill. 2015). 

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Related legal case

Koger v. Dart