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Federal Suit Challenging Iowa DOC Ban on Nude Images Moves Forward, Defendants Denied Summary Judgement on Due Process Claim

by David M. Reutter

Finding a material dispute of fact exists in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a ban in Iowa prisons on sexually explicit materials and materials featuring nudity, a federal district court in the state denied summary judgment to defendant state and prison officials on September 30, 2021. The order also granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff prisoner’s Fourteenth Amendment due process claim.

The ruling comes in a lawsuit brought by prisoner Michael Lindgren challenging a 2018 law passed by the state legislature, Iowa Code §904.310A, which prohibits DOC from using state funds “to distribute or make available any commercially published information or material to an inmate when such information or material is sexually explicit or features nudity.” In response, DOC issued new rules and policies to limit prisoner access to media containing violence, sexually explicit content and nudity.

Lindgren filed suit pro se in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa on November 1, 2018, accusing the state and DOC of infringing his rights because he is a tattoo artist and it is “necessary for him to view magazines that may feature nudity in a nonsexual manner” in order to “keep his artistic skills intact, so that when released he may use those skills to make a productive lifestyle.”

His was also the only one of 58 Fort Dodge Correctional Facility prisoner suits challenging the ban—which closed “pornography reading rooms” in state prisons—that survived in court to continue.

Two months later, on January 2, 2019, he was granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis and appointed counsel, Des Moines attorney Nathan A. Mundy, who filed an amended complaint the following April 24, challenging the law both on its face and as it is applied, alleging violation both of Lindgren’s First Amendment rights and of his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights to challenge Defendants’ decisions.

Defendants filed for summary judgment, submitting in support an affidavit from William Sperfslage, DOC’s Deputy Director for Institutions, who said his forty years as a guard, deputy warden, and warden led him to believe that material containing violence, explicit sexual content, or nudity “results in problems including staff assaults, offender assaults, sexual harassment, issues with regard to rehabilitation and is an administrative burden to monitor and document.”

In its order, the Court limited its discussion to the part of the statute that bans nudity because Lindgren challenged only the ban on his magazines that “may feature nudity in a nonsexual manner.”

First, the Court addressed Lindgren’s as-applied challenge. The tattoo trade magazine he offered did not contain sexually explicit material. Rather, it showed tattoos located throughout the bodies of males and females. In two examples, it showed “human nipples, but it was unclear if they are applied to male or female bodies,” the Court noted.

Defendants, relying entirely on Sperfslage’s affidavit to support the reasonableness of the law and policy, made “no connection whatsoever as to how banning these particular magazines––whose primary focus are tattoos but occasionally display nude breasts in a nonsexual way––serve any of [their] correctional goals,” the Court continued.

They also failed to offer “objective support or specific evidence as to why those magazines are a safety or security risk, are detrimental to rehabilitation, or raise administrative costs,” the Court continued. There was not even a record of why the magazines were banned. Thus, the Court denied Defendants summary judgment on the as-applied challenge. It also denied summary judgment on the facial challenge, finding Sperfslage’s statements “vague and conclusionary.”

Sperfslage suggested a “cause and effect” relationship between the banned materials and prison goals, the Court noted, but he “presented no statistical evidence in support of these conclusions.” He also failed to establish that he was an expert in the area on which he gave opinions, leaving the Court to conclude that “[h]is statements do not appear to be based on personal experience but are instead general hypothesis of what Defendants believed might be true.”

Citing Waterman v. Farmer, 183 F.3d 208 (3rd Cir. 1999), the Court said it owes “deference to the decisions that prison officials make based on the facts, but not their statements of what the facts are.”

Turning then to the due process challenge, the Court granted summary judgment to Defendants because DOC has in place an appeal mechanism for censorship, providing Lindgren an avenue of redress. Thus Defendants’ motion was denied in part and granted in part. See: Lindgren v. State of Iowa, USDC (S.D. Ia.), Case No. 4:18-cv-00404.

The Court also noted a collateral challenge to the same law and policy brought under the Iowa constitution by a group of prisoners at Anamosa State Penitentiary two months before Lindgren filed suit. Their free speech claims also survived a motion for summary judgment by defendants, and that case is also awaiting trial. See: Gregory v. Iowa, Iowa Dist. (Polk Cty.), Case No. CVCV057085.  

Additional source: Des Moines Register

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Related legal cases

Gregory v. Iowa, Iowa Dist. (Polk Cty.)

Lindgren v. State of Iowa