Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817 (1974)

2012-08-14 08:42:19

In Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817 (1974), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a California prison regulation prohibiting interviews between journalists and specifically identified prisoners did not violate the First or Fourteenth Amendment rights of either prisoners or journalists. Analyzing the issue for the majority, Justice Stewart (joined by Justices Burger, White, Blackmun, and Rehnquist) balanced the interests of the prisoners and journalists against the legitimate penological objectives of the prison.

Although prisoners retain those rights not inconsistent with their status as prisoners, the fundamental necessity of maintaining secure prisons outweighed the prisoners’ First Amendment rights, especially because the prisoners enjoyed other forms of communication. They could communicate—even with the press—by mail and could meet with family, clergy, attorneys, or friends, communicating with the press through these visitors. Because journalists could visit minimum and maximum security wings, interviewing the prisoners encountered there, and because they could also interview randomly selected prisoners, the regulation did not amount to state interference with a free press.

Justice Powell agreed that the prisoners’ rights were not violated, but distinguished the journalists’ rights, concluding that the regulation did abridge these unconstitutionally. In his dissent, Justice Douglas (joined by Justices Brennan and Marshall) acknowledged that prison security is essential, but condemned the prison regulation as unconstitutionally overbroad and as violating the guarantee of a free press.

Pell suggests that legitimate penological interests may trump fundamental constitutional rights, a conclusion further articulated in the seminal prisoner rights case, Turner v. Safley (482 U.S. 78, 1987).


Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987)

See also Access to Prisons; Freedom of Speech and Press: Nineteenth Century; Media Access to Information; Prisoners and Freedom of Speech