Final Call Newspaper Ban Impedes Free Exercise of Religion

By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 15, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling last week that Louisiana prisons cannot ban newspapers published by the Nation of Islam (NOI).

Henry Leonard, a former police officer who is incarcerated at the David Wade Correctional Center (DWCC) for murder, has been a member of the NOI church since 1985. NOI, a recognized religion and a sect of the Islamic faith, publishes a weekly periodical, The Final Call.

Beginning in 2006, DWCC denied Leonard access to The Final Call, asserting that the publication interfered with rehabilitation of inmates and/or the maintenance of internal security.

DWCC officials objected to The Final Call because they believed that its final page, called the "The Muslim Program," was racially inflammatory. Leonard argued that there were no instances of prison violence related to the presence or distribution of The Final Call, and that the publication was his exclusive outlet for ordering NOI religious materials and receiving official information about the faith.

Though Muslim prisoners at DWCC were permitted religious materials and reasonable dietary accommodations, Leonard argued that NOI was distinct from Islam, and traditional Islamic services were insufficient.

The district court, relying on the Fifth Circuit's 1969 opinion in Walker v. Blackwell and the Supreme Court's Turner v. Safley decision, ruled that "The Muslim Program" was not racially inflammatory, and that banning The Final Call from DWCC was an unconstitutional restriction of Leonard's right to free exercise of religion.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court on appeal, noting that, while it disagreed with the contention that "The Muslim Program" does not include "racially inflammatory language," the record in the case did not justify banning the entire newspaper on account of one objectionable page.

Free exercise of religion isn't the only justification for permitting questionable reading material into prisons: In August, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals allowed a South Dakota prisoner's mail censorship claim to proceed after a prison mailroom intercepted his Japanese comic book, Shonen Jump, claiming that it was too violent. The Eighth Circuit found that there was sufficient evidence to support that the prison's mail censorship policy was unconstitutionally applied to the comic.

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