Jail’s newspaper ban violated prisoner’s rights, rules federal appeals court

Friday, April 30, 1999

A ban on newspapers in a Kansas county jail violated the First Amendment rights of an inmate, a federal appeals court recently ruled.

Mitchell Wayne Thomas, who was incarcerated at Reno County Detention Center in Kansas from 1992 to 1994, sued the Reno County Sheriff in federal court on several constitutional grounds. Among other things, Thomas alleged that the absolute ban on newspapers at the jail violated his First Amendment rights.

A lower court judge granted summary judgment to Thomas on his First Amendment claim, finding that the ban on newspapers was in violation of clearly established First Amendment rights of inmates. The federal judge awarded Thomas $1 in damages.

On appeal, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Thomas v. Leslie affirmed the lower court's decision. The 5th Circuit applied the legal standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1987 decision Turner v. Safley. In that case, the high court said that a court should examine four factors to determine whether a prison regulation “reasonably relates” to a legitimate governmental interest. These factors include:

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

The sheriff argued the ban was rationally related to prison concerns that the newspapers could be used to start fires and could become a health hazard. However, the appeals court pointed out that inmates were allowed to have softback Bibles, puzzle books and some paperback books. Because other materials presented the same safety concerns, the appeals court concluded that the ban was not related to the stated objective of preventing a fire hazard.

The sheriff claimed the ban passed the “alternative means” part of the test because the inmates had access to television. The 5th Circuit also rejected this argument in its opinion issued April 21, writing: “Television cannot supply the depth and diversity of coverage that newspapers can provide.”

The sheriff argued that he was entitled to qualified immunity because it has not been clearly established that inmates have a constitutional right to read newspapers. In civil rights law, government officials are entitled to qualified immunity if the constitutional right is not “clearly established.” Attorneys for the sheriff pointed out that neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the 5th Circuit had specifically ruled that inmates have a constitutional right to read newspapers.

However, the appeals court cited nine federal court cases holding that inmates have a right to read newspapers. “We therefore conclude that the contours of an inmate's right to access to newspapers [were] sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he was doing violates that right,” the court concluded.

The sheriff's attorney did not return phone calls.