While the Founding Fathers allotted First Amendment rights to the entire population under this country’s Bill of Rights, not every individual is permitted to take full advantage of them. From prisoners to minors, there is a spectrum from which individuals determine the extent of those First Amendment guarantees. While the law states that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” circumstances do allow for the retraction of these rights.
Such is the case with prisoners, whose rights are restricted compared to the average individual. Prison officials are allowed the rights to control the prisoners’ access to people and information, as well as regulate material given to prisoners.
In the 1991 Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Members of New York State Crime Victims Board (502 U.S. 105, 112 S.Ct. 501, 116 L.Ed.2d. 476), prisoners challenged a New York State law that required publishers to give all proceeds to the state on books written by a person convicted of a crime about their specific crime. The proceeds given to state would be put into a fund to be distributed to the victims and their families of the convict’s crime.
The burden of proof was on the government, in this case, to prove that there was a compelling interest in regulating the revenue and compensating the victims. They were also required to prove that the statute was narrowly tailored enough to protect all parties involved.
The case eventually was taken up with the Supreme Court, which ruled that singling out the convict’s income was unconstitutional, as they considered the publishing of a book or production of a movie an expressive activity. The law was deemed not narrowly tailored enough to merit its constitutionality.
In a second case, Wolf v. Ashcroft (297 F.3d 305), inmate Carl Wolf sued on behalf of himself and other inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution at McKean against U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. The prisoners challenged a 1996 federal law that banned playing NC-17, R, and X-rated movies in the penitentiary.
The 2002 case was taken up to the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals. At the District Court level, the judge ruled that the statute was "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests" and denied the prisoners’ claims.
The burden of proof was then on the state to prove that banning the movies with those ratings was a rational way to prevent disruptive behavior in the facility. The state argued that another reason for the ban could be to “facilitate the rehabilitation of prisoners.” Judge Rendell eventually decided to remand the case, arguing that the prisons should “use a standard more protective of prisoners.”
The First Amendment does guarantee our ability to discover the truth and promote stable change. However, once an individual abuses the laws put in place to protect our society, those rights may be stripped away, as in the case of convicted prisoners. As in the two cases presented, the rights of prisoners may be challenged, but are used to protect the society as a whole. Adults may garner the full freedoms presented in the First Amendment, yet prisoners are still restricted to extremely limited freedoms, as instituted by the state.