Federal appeals court reinstates inmate’s First Amendment claim

Thursday, August 19, 1999

A federal appeals court has reinstated part of a lawsuit filed by a prisoner who claims he has a First Amendment right to form a legal defense center.

Jason Nicholas, an inmate at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in New York, sued Thomas Miller, the inmate organization coordinator, and other prison officials after they refused his request to form a prisoner group that would assist inmates with legal issues.

Nicholas, who has nearly earned a college degree while in prison and plans to go to law school upon his release, claimed that the denial of the legal defense center violated his First Amendment rights of speech, assembly, petition, access to courts, political expression and association.

In June 1996, a federal judge dismissed all of Nicholas' claims. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Nicholas' First Amendment free-association claim in August 1997. The federal judge again dismissed the lawsuit in July 1998.

On appeal, the 2nd Circuit again reversed the federal judge in Nicholas v. Miller in an Aug. 13 opinion. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized a general right of expressive association. Under this right, people may associate with others to exercise their rights to freedom of speech, assembly, religion or petition.

The 2nd Circuit said that a prisoner's First Amendment free-association claim should be analyzed under the U.S. Supreme Court's standard for prisoner First Amendment claims articulated in its 1987 decision Turner v. Safley.

In Turner, the high court ruled that prison regulations are constitutional if they are “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”

Under the Turner analysis, courts examine four factors to determine whether a prison regulation “reasonably relates” to a legitimate governmental interest. These factors are:

  • 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 guards.
  • Whether prison officials can serve their interests with an alternative method that does not infringe on inmates' First Amendment rights.

The 2nd Circuit ruled that the district court erred in dismissing Nicholas' claim because that court failed to apply the Turner standard. Summary judgment was “improper,” the appeals court said, because “the district court did not acknowledge the applicability of Turner, much less address each Turner factor.”

The 2nd Circuit also noted that Nicholas has “asserted credible arguments as to why his proposed Center survives a Turner analysis.” The appeals court noted that prison officials failed to show how a legal defense center for prisoners would undermine security in the facility.

The court did rule that Nicholas could not recover monetary damages from prison officials because the officials were entitled to qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity shields governmental officials from liability if they have not violated a clearly established constitutional right. “Defendants are indeed entitled to qualified immunity, because the First Amendment right of association to form an inmate legal services organization was not clearly established at the time permission to form the Center was denied,” the court wrote.

The case has now been sent back down to the district court, which will determine whether Nicholas' First Amendment free-association claim requires the prison to let him form a legal defense center for prisoners.

Diane Rosky, the attorney who represented Nicholas at oral arguments before the 2nd Circuit, said that the appeals court properly recognized the First Amendment interests at stake. “The First Amendment was designed to protect political speech and unpopular speech,” she said. “Nicholas' legal defense center would engage in political and potentially unpopular speech.”

Calls placed to attorneys representing the prison officials were not returned.