4th Circuit sides with prison officials in dispute over ‘insolent’ letter

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

An inmate doesn’t have a First Amendment right to use “insolent” language in a letter complaining about how officials treat prisoners, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted in its Feb. 24 ruling that inmates receive a reduced level of protection for their speech and that deference to prison officials is a paramount consideration in such cases. The unanimous panel did not address how allegedly “insolent” language in a letter could cause the same type of institutional disruption as insolent verbal speech made to prison officials in the presence of other inmates.

The dispute began in 2004 when Johnny R. Huff, then incarcerated at Haynesville Correctional Center in Virginia, complained about the prison’s policy of making sick inmates stand outside in cold weather to receive medications. In his letter, which he sent to various government officials, media outlets and advocacy groups, Huff wrote about “the cold, callus (sic), cruel, evil, uncaring, unmerciful, inhumane officials you have left in charge as wardens.”

Corrections officials charged Huff with violating prison rules barring “vulgar or insolent language directed toward an employee.” Officials then placed Huff in segregation, gave him fewer good-time credits, and finally transferred him to a higher security prison.

Huff sued in federal court, contending that he was retaliated against by prison officials in response to his protected speech about the treatment of inmates. A federal district court ruled against Huff, reasoning that “the right to direct disrespectful comments toward prison officials in written correspondence is inconsistent with Huff’s status as a prisoner.”

Huff then appealed the district court’s summary judgment to the 4th Circuit. On Feb. 24, the 4th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision, ruling in favor of prison officials in Huff v. Mahon.

The 4th Circuit adopted the reasoning of what it termed the “careful and thorough opinion” of the district court. The appeals panel cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shaw v. Murphy (2001) for the proposition that “the prisoner must overcome a presumption that the prison officials acted within their broad discretion in order to prevail.”

Rebecca Glenberg, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said that no decision had been made yet on whether to appeal the decision. The ACLU is representing Huff.

“Our position was that the prison has no legitimate interest in punishing speech critical of prison officials that is in writing, rather than a face-to-face confrontation, not vulgar, and not threatening,” she said. “It is disappointing that the court did not directly address this position.”

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