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Second Circuit rules prisoners lack First Amendment rights to urge inmate strikes

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit [official website] on Monday affirmed [opinion, PDF] a ruling that a prisoner's First Amendment [Cornell LII backgrounder] rights are not violated if he is prohibited from writing material that encourages inmates to participate in work stoppages. Sing Sing prison inmate Prince Pilgrim brought the suit to challenge a New York state prison regulation [7 NYCRR § 270.2 materials] that prohibits inmates from leading, organizing, participating, or urging others to participate in a "work stoppage, sit-in, lock-in, or other actions which may be detrimental" within penitentiaries, alleging First Amendment and due process [Cornell LII backgrounder] violations. The district court originally granted summary judgment for the state facility and officials following a magistrate judge's determination that Pilgrim's document, titled "Wake Up!," urged prison disruption and that rules banning such material served legitimate governmental interests. The appeals court looked to precedent in upholding the district court decision, ruling that:

other cases have held that similar inmate activity within prisons is not protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has held that "[i]n a prison context, an inmate does not retain those First Amendment rights that are inconsistent with his status as a prisoner or with the legitimate penological objectives of the corrections system," ... including "organized union activity within the prison walls." Work stoppages are deliberate disruptions of the regular order of the prison environment and are a species of "organized union activity." ... They are plainly inconsistent with legitimate objectives of prison organization. Entreaties to such activity...are not entitled to First Amendment protection where other less disruptive means of airing grievances are available. Accordingly, plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claim fails as a matter of law.

The court also rejected Pilgrim's due process claims, which arose out of alleged inadequate assistance during a disciplinary hearing, on the grounds that they were without merit.

First Amendment restrictions in prisons are frequently contested before the courts. Last month, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit [official website] upheld [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] a Massachusetts prison regulation that prohibited prisoners from receiving sexually explicit mail. As in the Second Circuit's Monday ruling, the court upheld the mail restriction as a legitimate governmental interest in ensuring prison safety and security.

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