By: Michael Kunzelman
A Louisiana state prison cannot censor or restrict an inmate’s access to copies of The Final Call newspaper published by the Nation of Islam, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Donald Walter in Shreveport ordered the David Wade Correctional Center to deliver future issues of the newspaper to Henry Leonard, an inmate who claims the Homer prison violated his right to free exercise of religion.
The prison said it restricted Leonard’s access to the newspaper because of security concerns about articles it found to be racially discriminatory.
Walter, however, expressed concern that banning the newspaper was an exaggerated response to security concerns. The judge said prison officials couldn’t cite any instances in which violence or unrest could be attributed to The Final Call.
“The wholesale prohibition of the publication is simply too broad when balanced with the plaintiff’s right to the free exercise of his religion,” Walter wrote in his 21-page ruling.
The judge said prison officials could restrict inmates’ access to the newspaper if they can show that the publication has incited violence or “ever develops a substantially inflammatory effect on the inmates.”
“Such actions would be rationally related to the penological objective of preventing security threats to the inmates, staff and the facility,” he wrote.
Leonard is a former Baton Rouge police officer who was convicted of murdering his estranged wife’s boyfriend. The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana backed his lawsuit, filed in May 2007.
ACLU attorney Katie Schwartzmann said Leonard hasn’t had access to the newspaper in three years.
“There was nothing the state could point to as justification for banning it, other than its disagreement with the political or religious messages contained in the publication. And that’s a very dangerous thing,” she said.
The ACLU filed a similar case in February 2009 on behalf of an inmate at a state prison in Angola, who says he has been denied access to The Final Call.