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Prisoner's Punishment for Attempting to Mail Out Threat-Laden "Poems" Upheld by Minnesota Court of Appeals

In a decision dated January 11, 2016, the Minnesota Court of Appeals denied a petition filed by a state prisoner who alleged his First Amendment rights were violated when prison officials found him guilty and sanctioned him with loss of good time for violating rules regarding sending threatening mail. The court rejected the prisoner's claim that his poems, addressed to various media outlets, were purely fictional.

James David McBroom filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in county district court challenging four prison disciplinary hearings which found him guilty of threatening others, including his crime victim and prison mailroom staff. The threats were contained in "poems" McBroom had addressed to several news organizations.

According to prison authorities at the Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility in Minnesota, McBroom's poems contained threats of physical and sexual violence against a female "troll." Because McBroom referred in court documents to his crime victim as a "troll," and other references in the poem--DNA evidence and lie detector tests--that also mirrored his criminal proceeding, McBroom was found guilty of making threats to his victim and sanctioned with 15 days loss of good time.

Other "poems" McBroom was punished for included threats of murder against "female unicorns" in the prison mailroom, urging mailroom staff to commit suicide, derogatory sexual descriptions of mailroom staff, and one that "threatened the troll with slaughter and decapitation."

All tolled, McBroom lost a total of 105 days of good time and spent over 300 days in segregation as punishment for his writings. McBroom's habeas petition asserted that the sanctions violated his right to free speech under the First Amendment. The district court disagreed and denied his petition. McBroom then appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, who upheld the sanctions and findings of the disciplinary officer.

The court rejected McBroom's argument that his "poems" were fictional writing protected by the First Amendment. The appellate court found that McBroom "was properly disciplined for attempting to send unallowable mail to media outlets that contained statements threatening others," the court said. "Examination of documents submitted in McBroom's criminal proceedings shows correlation between statements McBroom made during those proceedings and the messages contained in his poems that were not coincidental, and could only be intentional."

Calling McBroom's writings "thinly-veiled attacks" directed at his crime victim and prison mailroom staff, the court determined that the district court "did not err in" upholding McBroom's discipline.

The court finally rejected McBroom's contention that inspection of his outgoing mail, by itself, is a violation of his First Amendment rights. The policy challenged by McBroom, though, does not impose a blanket restriction on outgoing mail, the court held, and only authorizes random inspections where "there is a justifiable belief that its contents constitute a risk to safety and security." Thus, the policy did not violate McBroom's First Amendment rights.

The sanctions and findings were upheld and McBroom's petition for a writ of habeas corpus denied. See: McBroom v. Minnesota Correctional Facility - Oak Park Heights, et al., No. A15-1544 (C.A. Minn.), January 11, 2016.

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Related legal case

McBroom v. Minnesota Correctional Facility - Oak Park Heights