Court strikes down law barring Playboy, Penthouse from prisons
WASHINGTON, D.C.–A law that bars federal prisoners from purchasing sexually explicit publications was struck down by a federal District Court judge in mid-August as an unconstitutional limit on prisoners’ First Amendment rights. The law, known as the “Ensign Amendment,” was enacted after it was added as an amendment to the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 1997 in late-September 1996.
District Judge Stanley Sporkin noted that a statute or regulation limiting distribution in prisons of incoming publications is valid if it is “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” In determining reasonableness, the court said the governmental objective underlying the regulation must be “legitimate and neutral,” and the law must be “rationally related” to the state’s objective.
Sporkin found that the law was an attempt to “get tough” with prisoners and focused on the content of the magazines, and thus did not survive scrutiny.
The court observed that although the rehabilitation of prisoners is a legitimate interest, the content-based distinction in the law was not made “solely with a view to the implications for rehabilitation.”
Sporkin added that it was “of concern to this court” that the legislation was a “hastily-drafted statute tagged on to a massive budget bill.” He also criticized Congress for passing the amendment without hearings or investigation and with “no consideration of the Constitutional concerns raised by such legislation.”
The case consolidated challenges brought by two prisoners and publishers of magazines that are banned under the law, including Playboy and Penthouse. (Amatel v. Reno; Media Counsel: Marjorie Lynn Rifkin, Washington)