Victory: Court Rejects Jail’s Postcard-Only Rule As Unlawful Infringement of Prisoners’ First Amendment Rights
ST. LOUIS, Mo. — In a victory for prisoners’ rights, a federal appeals court has given the green light to a First Amendment lawsuit challenging an Arkansas county jail’s postcard-only policy that limits the mail prisoners can send and receive to postcards.
The ruling by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) v. Baxter County found that jail officials failed to show how prisoners could otherwise obtain newspapers, magazines and other printed material they are entitled to receive. The Rutherford Institute and a coalition of civil liberties groups, including R Street Institute, the Clark-Fox Family Foundation, Arch City Defenders and Americans for Prosperity, filed an amicus brief in support of the prisoners pointing to historic examples of prisoner communications—such as St. Paul’s epistles written from prison, the letters of Martin Luther King, Jr., and German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer—as examples of the kinds of writings that could be inhibited or prevented by the postcard-only rule.
Affiliate attorneys Mark Sableman, Michael L. Nepple, and Anthony F. Blum of Thompson Coburn LLP assisted in advancing the arguments in the HRDC brief.
“Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is perhaps the most famous prison letter of modern times. But that letter would not have been allowed had these postcard-only policies been in effect,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Indeed, if King had been limited to postcards, his treatise on the need for racial justice in America would have filled 70 postcards and taken nearly five months to mail out under the current Arkansas jail policy.”
Baxter County, located in north-central Arkansas, operates a jail housing about 100 persons who have been arrested and are awaiting trial. In December 2011, jail authorities announced a new policy that persons held in the jail would only be allowed to send and receive postcards—4-inch by 6-inch cards—for mailing messages without an envelope. Indigent inmates are limited to three postcards per week. Authorities asserted this policy was intended to limit contraband coming into the jail and to save costs. As a result of the policy, HRDC was no longer able to send prisoners its monthly Prison Legal News magazine covering prison-related news, as well as other self-help and educational books requested and purchased by prisoners. In addition, the messages prisoners could send to or receive from family were limited to what could fit on a postcard.
HRDC sued the County, arguing that the policy violated the First Amendment. Although the trial court acknowledged that HRDC and the prisoners have a First Amendment right to send and receive information, it ruled that the jail’s interest in preventing contraband from entering the jail and in limiting the costs incurred in reviewing incoming mail outweighed the First Amendment rights of HRDC and the prisoners. HRDC appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In its amicus brief, The Rutherford Institute and its coalition partners argued that the postcard-only policy goes far beyond what is needed or reasonable to address legitimate penological needs and significantly impairs essential human rights of communication and learning.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.
The court’s opinion and the coalition’s amicus brief in HRDC v. Baxter County are available at www.rutherford.org.