Federal Appeals Court approves prison censorship rule

prison censorship

A federal appeals court ruled recently in favor of prison officials who had seized a copy of Newsweek magazine from an inmate.

“Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” So wrote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in Turner v. Safley (1987).

Missouri inmate Joseph Murchison discovered those were hollow words recently when a federal appeals court recently ruled that prison officials could confiscate an issue of his Newsweek magazine. Murchison had a subscription to the weekly magazine and read it without incident for some time. However, prison officials censored the October 11, 2010, issue of the magazine, objecting to an article titled “Hiding Behind the Web.”

The article discussed a blog managed by a college student living in Mexico who reported on the violence perpetrated by drug cartels. Prison officials confiscated the magazine on the grounds that it “promotes violence, disorder or the violation of state or federal law including inflammatory material.”

The article had photographs of two individuals hanging from a bridge and another of a person lying in blood on the street.

Murchison sued, contending that the censorship of his magazine violated his First Amendment rights.  A federal district court ruled against him.  On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court in its March 11, 2015, decision in Murchison v. Rogers.

The 8th Circuit panel showed great deference to prison officials when applying Justice O’Connor’s standard from Turner v. Safley – whether the rationale by prison officials was reasonably related to a legitimate penological concern, such as safety.

The panel emphasized that courts should defer to prison officials who have the responsibility of managing under difficult circumstances.

First Amendment advocates acknowledge the responsibility, but say it doesn’t excuse abject censorship. The Newsweek article was not glorifying violence; it was reporting about the violence. Murchison was able to show that other reading materials depicting violence was not censored. The 8th Circuit panel glossed over this, writing: “that some other violent material with similar content is available in the prison does not undermine the prison officials decision to censor this particular Newsweek issue.”

The rationale in Turner v. Safley is very deferential to prison officials.  Also, some officials simply don’t respect the fact that inmates do retain some level of rights behind bars.

David L. Hudson Jr. is the First Amendment Ombudsman for the Newseum Institute.

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