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Inmate policy does not violate First Amendment

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   U.S. SUPREME COURT   ·   Newsgathering   ·   June 29, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   U.S. SUPREME COURT   ·   Newsgathering   ·   June 29, 2006


Inmate policy does not violate First Amendment

  • A policy prohibiting inmates in a Pennsylvania prison from receiving newspapers, magazines, and personal photographs is upheld by the nation’s highest court.

June 29, 2006  ·   The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld prison regulations banning the most incorrigible inmates from receiving newspapers or magazines unless their content is religious or legal.

The Court, declining to find the Pennsylvania regulations violated prisoner First Amendment rights, overturned the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.).

“While we do not deny the constitutional importance of the interests in question, we find, on the basis of the record now before us, that prison officials have set forth adequate legal support for the policy,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the four-judge plurality in Beard v. Banks.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy and David Souter joined him.

“The plaintiff, a prisoner who attacks the policy, has failed to set forth ‘specific facts’ that, in light of the deference that courts must show to the prison officials, could warrant a determination in his favor,” Breyer wrote.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia concurred in the 6-2 judgment but for different reasons. Justice Samuel Alito, who sided with the government in the case when he was on the Third Circuit, did not participate.

A coalition of media organizations, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, asked the Supreme Court in a friend-of-the-court brief to find the policy unconstitutional. The coalition argued that prison policies affecting prisoners’ First Amendment rights can have serious consequences for how journalists interview prisoners and obtain information on prison conditions. Today’s opinion did not address that issue, focusing instead on prisoner Ronald Banks’ failure to challenge the facts presented by Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard in the case.

Banks challenged the policy, which applies to about 40 inmates in the Pennsylvania prison system’s Long Term Segregation Unit and deprives the prisoners of access to newspapers, magazines and personal photographs.

The Department of Corrections and Beard argued the regulation is reasonable and relates to legitimate penological interests because it provides an incentive for prisoners to behave properly and have their privileges restored.

The Supreme Court’s focus on Banks’ failure to challenge the facts presented by Beard meant the Court had to take as true all of the facts the Department of Corrections presented about the legitimacy and implementation of the policy.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, disagreeing with the Court’s focus on Banks’ failure to challenge the facts.

In his dissent, Stevens said the case should have been returned to a lower court for trial.

“In sum, the logical connection between the ban on newspapers and (especially) the ban on personal photographs, on one hand, and the rehabilitation interests posited by petitioner, on the other, is at best highly questionable, ” Stevens wrote.

(Beard v. Banks)HB

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