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Prison’s Censorship of Newsweek Upheld

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a grant of summary judgment to prison officials in a First Amendment challenge to the censorship of a magazine because it contained an article that reported violence and disorder in Mexico involving drug cartels.

Missouri prisoner Joseph Murchison had subscribed to Newsweek for many years. He received most issues without incident, but staff at the South Central Correctional Center censored the October 11, 2010 issue on the grounds that it “promotes violence, disorder, or the violation of state or federal law including inflammatory material” due to three pages that contained the article on Mexican drug-related violence. Murchison filed suit and the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit found the article “Hiding Behind the Web” focused on and depicted “disorder, violence, and the violation of law.” The article described attacks by drug cartels against the Mexican government and military. Additionally, it contained a photograph of two people hanging from a bridge and another of a journalist lying on a street in a pool of blood.

“Although the material, on its face, may not necessarily explicitly advocate for violence or the violation of law, this does not mean it does not promote it either,” the appellate court wrote. The Court of Appeals then deferred to a prison official’s statement that “prolonged exposure to violent acts, through print or other materials or other media, reinforces socially irresponsible behavior inside prisons.” Therefore, the Court found there was a legitimate penological objective to censoring the article.

The Eighth Circuit noted there was not a blanket ban on the publication. It also found that although “some other violent material with similar content is available in the prison [that] does not undermine the prison officials’ decision to censor this particular Newsweek issue.”

Murchison cited “to other written and non-written materials with similar content available in the prison library,” which the appellate court held “demonstrates that he is able to exercise his First Amendment rights.” Absent a blanket ban on Newsweek and a suggestion that the specific content has been entirely banned, the Court of Appeals held that “Murchison has alternative means to exercise his rights.” Just not his right to read that particular article.

Finally, the alternatives that Murchison suggested, including removing the objectionable article, were not found to have a de minimus effect.

“Tearing out specific pages of a specific publication containing prohibited material does not sound particularly difficult. Yet, when considered in the context of the review process for all incoming mail, the question becomes more complex,” the appellate court stated. “Prison policy provides that ‘[i]f part of an item or mailing is prohibited, the entire item must be censored.’ Thus, prison officials cannot merely tear out the pages specific to Murchison’s censored publication, they would have to do so for all incoming publications which include prohibited content. Murchison has not challenged, and we have an insufficient record to fully evaluate, whether the prison regulation of censoring an entire item based on a limited amount of content subject to censorship, on its face, is constitutional.”

The district court’s order was affirmed. See: Murchison v. Rogers, 779 F.3d 882 (8th Cir. 2015), rehearing denied. 

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