No R-rated movies for Calif. inmates

Thursday, July 14, 2011

California prison officials can prohibit inmates from viewing R-rated movies and movies that “glorify violence or sex” without violating the First Amendment, a federal court has ruled.

A California Department of Corrections policy provides that only movies rated G, PG or PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America may be shown to inmates, although films that “have been placed on the department’s discretionary showing list may be considered for viewing.”

“Regardless of their rating or listing, movies/videos which, in the opinion of the reviewer, glorify violence or sex, or are inflammatory to the climate of the [prison] shall not be shown,” the policy adds.

Inmate Perry Robert Avila, housed in a California prison in Corcoran, challenged the constitutionality of this policy in federal court. He contended that the prison’s policy of categorically prohibiting all R-rated movies – even those without excessive sex or violence – violates the First Amendment. For example, Avila said the MPAA may rate some movies R merely because they portray adult themes.

California prison officials countered that the policy does not violate any free-speech rights and furthers the prison’s legitimate interests in safety.

On July 8, U.S. District Judge Jennifer L. Thurston sided with prison officials in her opinion in Avila v. Cate. She reasoned that the policy did advance the prison’s legitimate safety interests. Citing several other federal courts that had upheld bans on R-rated movies in prisons, she concluded that “reliance on the MPAA system is reasonable even though it may exclude movies that do not further penological goals.”

Avila contended that the prison policy at least should allow all of the movies on the National Film Registry – even the R-rated ones – to be shown in the prison. However, Thurston noted that many movies on the registry – such as “Alien,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Halloween,” were of a “graphic nature.”

Avila also argued that prison officials should allow movies unless they are specifically shown to contain excessive sex or violence. Thurston wrote that “the suggestion that all movies be presumptively allowed to be shown unless they are shown to glorify violence or sex or inflame the prison population would require the prison to spend limited resources watching every movie produced.” She said having to do that would be an “excessive burden on an already cash-strapped system.”

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