Today US District Judge Donald Walter of the U. S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana ruled that the newspaper "The Final Call" cannot be censored or denied to a prisoner who requested it in accordance with his religious beliefs.
Henry Leonard, a prisoner in the David Wade Correctional Center, is a member of the Nation of Islam, which publishes "The Final Call." The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections denied "The Final Call" because prison officials found the content offensive. Because of the censorship imposed by prison officials, Mr. Leonard was unable to maintain and expand upon his religious beliefs. Today the court ruled that he has the right to receive his religious materials. Stating that Mr. Leonard "has no alternative means to practice his religion without receipt of 'The Final Call,'" Judge Walter compared denial of this publication with a refusal to allow a Christian access to the Old Testament or a Mormon access to the Book of Mormon.
"Allowing the government to decide which ideas and religions are preferred is extremely dangerous, because unpopular ideas and beliefs will be outlawed," said ACLU of Louisiana Legal Director Katie Schwartzmann. "That is exactly what happened here: prison officials banned a publication simply because they found it politically distasteful. This is the height of censorship, and is the sort of abuse of authority that the founding fathers sought to guard against. Religious freedom demands that everyone must have access to religious materials of their choosing unless there is a compelling reason for any restriction."
The ruling today came in the form of a summary judgment, granted in Mr. Leonard's favor because there were no facts in dispute. As the court recognized, the law is clear that the government must not interfere in the exercise of religion. In ruling in Mr. Leonard's favor, the court rejected the Department's arguments that "The Final Call" is a threat to prison security. "The First Amendment means that the government cannot dictate what people can read and what religious materials they may access," said ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie Esman. "This is true even in prison unless officials can demonstrate that the requested materials will cause a disturbance inside the facility. Here, where no such evidence ever existed, prison officials imposed their own belief systems on Mr. Leonard, in violation of his rights. The court properly recognized that prison officials had overstepped their bounds in denying religious publications to someone who wanted nothing more than to read them."
Katie Schwartzmann continued: "This case was hard-fought by both sides, taking almost three years and hundreds of hours to win. I am proud to have represented Henry Leonard in support of his right to exercise his religion, and am delighted by the victory."
The lawsuit, titled "Henry Leonard v. State of Louisiana et al," was filed on May 9, 2007. Additional counsel for Henry Leonard is Nelson Cameron of Shreveport, LA. The ACLU continues to litigate a nearly identical case against Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in Anderson v. Cain.
A copy of the court's ruling may be found here.