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Censorship of prisoner mail is justified if the following criteria are met. First, the regulation or practice in question must further an important or substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of expression. Prison officials may not censor inmate correspondence simply to eliminate unflattering or unwelcome opinions or factually inaccurate statements. Rather, they must show that a regulation authorizing mail censorship furthers one or more of the substantial governmental interests of security, order, and rehabilitation. Second, the limitation of First Amendment freedoms must be no greater than is necessary or essential to the protection of the particular governmental interest involved. Thus a restriction on inmate correspondence that furthers an important or substantial interest of penal administration will nevertheless be invalid if its sweep is unnecessarily broad. This does not mean, of course, that prison administrators may be required to show with certainty that adverse consequences would flow from the failure to censor a particular letter. Some latitude in anticipating the probable consequences of allowing certain speech in a prison environment is essential to the proper discharge of an administrator's duty.
A class action was instituted in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California by inmates of California penal institutions, challenging the constitutionality of certain state prison regulations relating to the censorship of prisoners' incoming and outgoing personal mail, and restricting access to a prisoner by investigators of the attorney-of- record to investigators who were members of the bar or licensed private investigators, thus banning the use of law students or legal paraprofessionals to conduct attorney-client interviews. The mail censorship regulations authorized censorship of statements that "unduly complain" or "magnify grievances," expression of "inflammatory political, racial, or religious, or other views," and matter deemed "defamatory" or "otherwise inappropriate." The three-judge District Court enjoined continued enforcement of the regulations and ordered the submission of new regulations for the court's approval, holding that (1) the mail censorship regulations violated the First Amendment's protection of lawful expression, were void for vagueness, and failed to provide minimum procedural safeguards against arbitrary censorship of protected speech, (2) an inmate must be notified of the rejection of a letter written by or addressed to him, the author of the letter must be given a reasonable opportunity to protest the decision, and complaints must be referred to a prison official other than the person who originally disapproved the correspondence, and (3) the ban on the use of law students or paraprofessionals to conduct attorney-client interviews constituted an unjustifiable restriction on prisoners' right of access to the courts.
Did the district court err in enjoining the continued enforcement of the questioned prison regulations?
The court found that censorship of prisoner mail worked a consequential restriction on the U.S. Const. amend. I, XIV rights of those who were not prisoners. The department's regulations authorized censorship of prisoner mail far broader than any legitimate interest of penal administration demanded and were properly found invalid by the district court. Further, the decision to censor or withhold delivery of a particular letter had to be accompanied by minimum procedural safeguards. The district court also found that the rule restricting attorney-client interviews to members of the bar and licensed private investigators inhibited adequate professional representation of indigent inmates. The court, therefore, concluded that the regulation imposed a substantial burden on the right of access to the courts.