Prison inmates do not enjoy a First Amendment right to receive newspapers and magazines in their cells when they are being punished in the highest security section of a prison.
In an important decision restricting free speech protections behind bars, the US Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that Pennsylvania state prison officials did not violate the constitutional rights of their most dangerous inmates by barring access to various news publications.
The vote was 6 to 2.
"Imprisonment does not automatically deprive a prisoner of certain important constitutional protections, including those of the First Amendment," writes Justice Stephen Breyer in the majority opinion. "At the same time the Constitution sometimes permits greater restriction of such rights in a prison than it would elsewhere."
The key test, says Justice Breyer, is whether the prison restrictions are reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. The high court said the prison restriction was aimed at creating an incentive for better prison behavior among problematic inmates, and thus satisfied the court's standard.
In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the Pennsylvania regulations cross a fundamental line.
"The right of freedom of speech and press includes not only the right to utter or print, but the right to distribute, the right to receive, the right to read and freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought," he writes in a dissent joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
"The rule comes perilously close to a state-sponsored effort at mind control," Justice Stevens says.
"In this case, the complete prohibition on secular, nonlegal newspapers, newsletters, and magazines prevents prisoners from receiving suitable access to social, political, esthetic, moral, and other ideas, which are central to the development and preservation of individual identity, and are clearly protected by the First Amendment," he writes.
The decision stems from a 2001 class action lawsuit filed by Ronald Banks, who was housed in the Long Term Segregation Unit (LTSU) of the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh. Inmates are sent to the LTSU to be punished for serious violations of prison rules, including attempted escape, murder, and assault. The unit houses 48 prisoners and is reserved for the most difficult and dangerous.
They are held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day with no radio or television. They are permitted to receive religious and legal publications, but are not allowed any newspapers, magazines, or photographs.
Mr. Banks sued, claiming a First Amendment right to have access to information and ideas from the outside world. Specifically, he complained that prison officials had no right to block his subscription to The Christian Science Monitor.
Prison officials said the denial of newspapers and magazines was part of a multiphase program aimed at creating incentives for inmates to follow prison rules. The policy was also aimed at denying inmates materials that might be used to hide weapons, start fires, or hurl feces at guards.
A federal judge threw out the case. But a federal appeals court ruled 2 to 1 in Banks's favor. The dissenting judge was Samuel Alito, who is now a justice on the Supreme Court. Justice Alito recused himself from the case because of his earlier involvement.