Sometimes, inmate complaints don’t hold First Amendment water

Monday, October 18, 2010

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Prison inmates often face stark deprivations of their constitutional rights, as prisons and jails can be constitutional black holes. Sometimes they face retaliation for filing grievances against prison guards. Sometimes prison officials deny them access to legal information or their mail. But, to speak candidly, some inmates' First Amendment claims border on the trivial or silly.

Randall B. Hofland’s claims against York County Jail in Maine may fall into this latter category. Hofland, who made national news in 2008 for allegedly holding a fifth-grade elementary school class hostage in Stockton (he pleaded not guilty), contended that he didn’t receive a newspaper every day at the York jail and didn’t get to watch television news programs when he wanted. He filed a complaint alleging that jail officials infringed on his First Amendment freedoms.

Jail officials had a constitutional obligation to “ensure fair and equal access to” the newspapers of his choice, Hofland contended He also claimed they were obliged to ensure he could watch the television news programs of his choice.

Hofland said that although he was often able to read a newspaper, other inmates often took some sections before he saw them. As for TV, Hofland complained that other inmates were allowed to change the channel while he was watching the news. Sometimes, he said, guards would not allow him to watch the news at all, because other inmates would yell that they wanted to watch something else.

After a Maine superior court rejected Hofland's claims, he appealed to the state's highest court, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine. On Oct. 12, the Maine high court affirmed the lower court and rejected Hofland’s claims in its decision in Hofland v. York County Jail.

The Maine high court recognized that prison officials can violate the First Amendment by denying inmates access to newspapers. But Hofland admitted that he often received a newspaper — but it wasn't always the one he wanted or it had sections missing. Unimpressed with this claim, the Maine high court wrote: “There is no constitutional requirement that prisons or jails provide free newspapers to inmates.”

The court was even less impressed with Hofland's claim that inmates have a constitutional right to watch television shows of their choosing. “There is also no constitutional requirement that such facilities provide inmates access to television news programming, or to television of any kind,” the court wrote.

The court concluded that “Hofland has not alleged a cognizable constitutional violation, and the Superior Court did not err in dismissing Hofland’s claims.”

In fairness, Hofland has filed other lawsuits that may have merit, including one involving the alleged confiscation of legal-research materials.

But a prisoner's demand to watch the TV news programs of his choice is not one likely to receive much support from the judiciary — or the public.

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