In a recent Eleventh Circuit case, Prison Legal News v. Sec’y, Fla. Dep’t of Corr., No. 15-14220 (May 17, 2018), a federal appellate court upheld the Florida Department of Corrections’ (DOC) decision to confiscate a monthly prisoner magazine, Prison Legal News, published by the plaintiff, Prison Legal News (PLN). The Court found that the DOC’s confiscation of the magazine was not an exaggerated response to its security concerns as a reasonable relationship existed between the DOC’s actions and public safety, while also finding that the DOC’s procedures violated PLN’s due process rights.
The DOC argued that it limits certain inmate phone and correspondence privileges to thwart inmate efforts to commit fraud and other crimes from prison. Specifically, the DOC restricts phone access, three-way calling, and pen pal correspondence, as well as prohibiting using stamps for currency. PLN’s issues, however, contains ads soliciting pen pals and promoting services for three-way calling, cash for-stamps exchanges, prisoner concierges, and people locators. As a result, the DOC began impounding the magazine without always providing notice to PLN about the censorship.
After rejecting the plaintiff and amici’s argument that diminished deference should be given to prison administrators when evaluating First Amendment claims, the Court evaluated PLN’s claim under the standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Turner v. Safely, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), which grants substantial deference to prison officials’ decisions. Applying the Turner standard, the Court found that the censorship was content-neutral, reasonably related to a paramount penological interest – prison security and public safety – and not an exaggerated response to such interests.
Moreover, the burden on the DOC to detect and prevent the security problems engendered by the ads in PLN’s magazine would require the DOC to allocate more time, money and personnel, greatly burdening the DOC. The Court also held that the DOC provided adequate alternative means for PLN to “speak” to Florida DOC inmates through other publications, such as PLN’s books and handbooks for prisoners which do not contain ads.
Although the Court held that the DOC’s impoundment of the magazine did not violate PLN’s First Amendment rights, it did find that its failure to provide PLN with notice of the censorship violated its due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Appellate Court upheld the lower court’s grant of an injunction requiring the DOC to provide notice and an opportunity to be heard (to challenge the decision) for each impounded issue.
It is important to note that courts our local appellate circuit, the Seventh Circuit, have not made similar findings relating to PLN and other publications. This is the first major court finding against PLN on its First Amendment’s claims, and the defense case was well documented and supported. Please contact us if you have an interest in updating your facility’s newspaper and magazine procedures.