Texas appeals court reinstates prisoner’s free-speech claim

Friday, February 11, 2000

A Texas inmate who alleged that prison officials violated his First Amendment rights by interfering with his mail can proceed with his lawsuit, a state appeals court has ruled.

Joseph Reed, an inmate at the Estelle Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, sued prison officials, claiming a violation of his civil rights. Reed claimed that officials infringed on his rights when they denied him certain law books and refused to deliver his mail to him.

The officials contended that the lawsuit was frivolous and asked a trial court to dismiss it.

After the trial court complied with the officials’ request, Reed took the case to the Texas Court of Appeals.

The appeals court construed Reed’s lawsuit — filed without a lawyer — as alleging three separate claims: denial of access to the courts, First Amendment retaliation and First Amendment right to free speech.

In Reed v. Roberts, the appeals court agreed that the access-to-the-courts and retaliation claims should have been dismissed.

“An inmate’s right of meaningful access to the courts is a fundamental constitutional right that places certain obligations on the part of prison and jail authorities to assist inmates in presenting their claims,” the appeals court asserted.

However, Reed “has not alleged injury in pending litigation in this or any other case,” the court wrote.

The appeals court also rejected Reed’s retaliation claim as frivolous because his allegation was asserted as a conclusion without supporting facts.

However, the court treated Reed’s free-speech claim differently in its Feb. 3 opinion. Citing an opinion from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the state appeals court wrote: “A prison official’s interference with a prisoner’s legal mail may violate the prisoner’s First Amendment right to speech, i.e., the right to be free from unjustified governmental interference with communication.”

The court concluded that Reed had “stated facts sufficient to raise a cognizable claim for a denial of his right to free speech.” The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court for “further proceedings.”

Andrea Horton, spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general’s office, said: “We do not plan to appeal this decision. However, we do plan to file a motion for summary judgment on the remaining claim.”