In Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974), the Supreme Court established a protective standard of inmate First Amendment rights of free speech — a standard that the Court would reduce in later years to accommodate prison officials. Specifically, the Court formulated a standard for reviewing the constitutionality of inmate mail censorship procedures.
California Department of Corrections allowed censorship of inmate mail
The California Department of Corrections had passed regulations allowing prison officials broad authority to read and censor all prisoner mail. One regulation prohibited inmate letters that “unduly complain” or “magnify grievances.” Another regulation prohibited inmate letters that express “inflammatory political, racial, religious or other views or beliefs.” The policy allowed prison officials to monitor all inmate mail to check for such letters and provided no procedural mechanism for inmates to appeal adverse decisions.
A group of inmates, including Robert Martinez, challenged the regulations on free speech grounds, and a three-judge federal district court invalidated the regulations. On appeal, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the decision in an opinion by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.
Court upheld decision invalidating the censorship
Powell established that prison officials could censor inmate mail if the policy furthers “an important or substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of free expression” and “the limitation of First Amendment freedoms must be no greater than is necessary or essential to the protection of the particular governmental interest involved.” This standard was a form of intermediate scrutiny.
Powell reasoned that the California policy failed to meet this standard because it “fairly invited prison officials and employees to apply their own personal prejudices and opinions as standards for prisoner mail censorship.” He noted that the regulations were far too broad to prohibit only that mail that negatively affected prison security interests. The Court also noted that the regulations failed to provide any “minimum procedural safeguards” when officials censored or denied inmate access to certain letters.
Court later reduced First Amendment protections for inmates
In 1987 the Court reduced inmate First Amendment protections in Turner v. Safley by determining that prison regulations were only subject to a reasonableness, or rational basis, review. Confusion still exists in the lower courts, some of which still apply the Martinez standard to restrictions on outgoing prisoner mail and the Turner v. Safley standard to incoming prisoner mail.
David L. Hudson, Jr. is a law professor at Belmont who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment entitled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded (ABC-CLIO, 2017). This article was originally published in 2009.