Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Eighth Circuit Finds No Constitutional Right to Communicate in Chinese

On August 15, 2016, the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a case filed by a Chinese-born Missouri state prisoner who had his mail to and from China repeatedly rejected by prison officials.

Richard Yang – a Chinese-born prisoner incarcerated in the state of Missouri – filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri against numerous prison officials claiming his First Amendment rights were being violated when his mail to and from China was rejected by prison mailroom staff. Yang speaks very little English, and all of his family members live in China and speak no English. When he was first imprisoned in 2005, DOC officials allowed Yang to correspond in Chinese. But in late 2007 to 2008, and again in 2011, DOC officials refused to deliver his Chinese-language mail.

According to the Missouri DOC, Yang's mail constituted a threat to prison security because they had no one who could interpret Chinese. Yang filed several grievances claiming that he was being treated differently than other foreign language prisoners, whose Spanish-language mail, for example, was not rejected.

Yang filed suit on the mail delivery issue, and because DOC had also refused to let prisoners place international calls. That policy changed in 2012, but Yang was still unable to call his family due to "technical difficulties." Soon after Yang's lawsuit was filed, he was able-to place calls to China.

Yang's lawsuit alleged that DOC officials had infringed his rights under the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause, and the 'Due Process Clause, by denying him the ability to correspond in Chinese.

The district court dismissed Yang's complaint for failure to state a claim, ruling that DOC officials were justified by security concerns in denying Yang's mail. Yang appealed.

The Eighth Circuit upheld the district court, concluding that the mail rejections were "rationally related to the legitimate governmental interest in" prison security. The court held that the Missouri DOC did not have an obligation to pay for a Chinese language interpreter and that Yang had alternate forms of communication (including phone calls and writing his family in English and having them interpret it), rendering the restrictions "neutral."

The court also dismissed Yang's equal protection claim, finding "no evidence that differential treatment of foreign-language mail was motivated by race or national origin or that the treatment of Chinese-language mail was a pretext for discrimination."

Finally, the circuit court said that there was no due process violation because Yang was able to exhaust his administrative remedies "and to litigate them in federal court." See: Yang v. Missouri Department of Corrections, et al., No. 15-2231 (8th Cir. 8/15/2016).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Yang v. Missouri Department of Corrections, et al.