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Federal appeals court strikes down prison rule against gifts of publications

David Hudson
First Amendment Center

A Washington state prison regulation barring inmates from receiving publications as gifts violates the First Amendment, a federal appeals court ruled recently.

Under the regulation, an inmate could obtain a book, magazine or any other publication only if the prisoner ordered the publication and paid for it out of his or her own account.

Inmate Roger Crofton sued state prison officials in federal court after they initially rejected a book, Whisper of the River, ordered for him by his stepfather.

Crofton alleged the policy violated his First Amendment rights. However, prison officials claimed the policy served several substantial interests, including the prevention of contraband and "strong-arming." ("Strong-arming" is a practice in which inmates threaten to harm other inmates' friends or families if they don't send books or other materials.)

A federal district court rejected the state's argument and ruled that the regulation violated inmates' First Amendment rights. On appeal, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in Crofton v. Roe.

"It is well settled that the First Amendment protects the free flow of information to prisoners; any limitation must reasonably relate to a legitimate penological interest," the appeals court wrote in its March 26 opinion.

The 9th Circuit applied the legal standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1987 decision Turner v. Safley. In that case, the high court said that a court should examine four factors to determine whether a prison regulation "reasonably relates" to a legitimate governmental interest. These factors include:

  • Whether there is a rational relationship between the regulation and the prison officials' asserted interest in the regulation.
  • Whether inmates have alternative means available to exercise their constitutional rights.
  • How the inmates' exercise of their rights will affect other inmates and the guards.
  • Whether prison officials can serve their interests with an alternative method that does not infringe on inmates' First Amendment rights.

The appeals court ruled in favor of Crofton, finding that the state failed to satisfy the "rational relationship" prong of the test established in the Turner v. Safley case.

The state has "offered no justification for a blanket ban on the receipt of all gift publications," the court wrote. The court also determined that the state failed to describe the "particular risk" created by allowing prisoners to receive the publications as gifts.

"In sum, the state has shown no rational relationship between the policy and the legitimate penological objectives that it has asserted," the court concluded.

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