Justices rebuff expanded view of inmate First Amendment rights

Thursday, April 19, 2001

As expected, the Supreme Court yesterday refused to expand First Amendment rights for prisoners, even when they are giving legal advice to fellow inmates.

Ruling unanimously in Shaw v. Murphy, the justices said that prisoners have no special right under the First Amendment to give legal assistance to other prisoners.

“Augmenting First Amendment protection for inmate legal advice would undermine prison officials’ ability to address the complex and intractable problems of prison administration,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas for the court.

The decision embraced a 1987 precedent, Turner v. Safley, which said restrictions on inmate speech were permissible as long as they served “legitimate penological interests.”

David Fathi, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, says yesterday’s ruling “breaks no new ground” because of its reliance on the Turner decision. The court’s unsympathetic view of prisoners’ rights was unsurprising, Fathi said.

The ruling came in the case of Kevin Murphy, a Montana prisoner who served as an inmate law clerk, giving legal assistance to other prisoners. Corrections officer Robert Shaw intercepted a note Murphy sent to another inmate advising him to resist charges of assaulting a guard. Because the note contained disparaging remarks about a guard, Murphy was charged with violating prison rules against insolence.

Murphy challenged the disciplinary action, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with him, asserting that when inmates give legal advice, they are entitled to more First Amendment protection than is given to other kinds of speech. Montana appealed to the Supreme Court.

In oral arguments before the court in January, Jeffrey Renz, Murphy’s lawyer, surprised many by declining to defend the 9th Circuit’s analysis giving extra free-speech protection to legal advice. Some justices indicated the lawyer’s strategy did not leave the court much to rule on, but the case was not dismissed. Renz was correct, however, in guessing that the court would have no sympathy for the 9th Circuit’s decision.

The ruling emphatically rejects any expanded view of the First Amendment rights of prisoners. “If courts were permitted to enhance constitutional protection based on their assessments of the content of the particular communications, courts would be in a position to assume a greater role in decisions affecting prison administration,” Thomas wrote. “Seeking to avoid unnecessarily perpetuat[ing] the involvement of the federal courts in affairs of prison administration … we reject an alteration of the Turner analysis that would entail additional federal-court oversight.”

The opinion is laced with wording that gives a narrow view of prisoners’ constitutional rights. “The constitutional rights that prisoners possess are more limited in scope than the constitutional rights held by individuals in society at large,” Thomas wrote. “In the First Amendment context, for instance, some rights are simply inconsistent with the status of a prisoner or with the legitimate penological objectives of the corrections system, Pell v. Procunier, (1974). We have thus sustained proscriptions of media interviews with individual inmates, … prohibitions on the activities of a prisoners labor union … and restrictions on inmate-to-inmate written correspondence.”

Legal advice within prisons also came under criticism. “Although supervised inmate legal assistance programs may serve valuable ends, it is indisputable that inmate law clerks are sometimes a menace to prison discipline and that prisoners have an acknowledged propensity to abuse both the giving and the seeking of [legal] assistance,” Thomas wrote. “Prisoners have used legal correspondence as a means for passing contraband and communicating instructions on how to manufacture drugs or weapons.”

The court did not reject Murphy’s claim outright. Instead, it sent the case back to the 9th Circuit for examination under the Turner standards. “To prevail, Murphy must overcome the presumption that the prison officials acted within their broad discretion,” the court said.

The court’s decision came down, coincidentally, on the same day that an Indiana federal judge deferred to the discretion of prison officials who are prohibiting general broadcast of the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

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