(CN) – Virginia prison officials must show a legitimate reason to ban Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ poetry recordings on the grounds that they only allow inmates access to religious spoken word CDs, in part thanks to Thomas’ famous Welsh lilt, a federal judge ruled.
Chief District Judge James Spencer found that the policy violated the free speech rights of the friend of a prison inmate, because the CD represented a “distinct communication” which the inmate wanted to receive.
In December 2010, Louisiana resident Owen North bought “The Caedmon Collection,” a CD on which Thomas reads his own poetry and that of others, as a Christmas gift for his friend, Shawn Goode. Goode is an inmate at the Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville, Virginia.
However, prison officials informed North that he could not send the CD to Goode because of a Virginia Department of Corrections “publisher only” policy that requires inmates to buy CDs directly from a manufacturer, rather than getting them indirectly through people outside of prison.
The officials told North that he could deposit money in Goode’s prison account so Goode could buy the disc himself instead. North did so, but when Goode tried to order the disc, the Department’s exclusive CD provider refused his order.
This time, prison officials pointed to a policy instituted by defendant John Jabe, deputy director of the Division of Operations. The policy prohibits inmates from buying or possessing non-music CDs, unless the CDs are faith-based.
In January 2011, North sent a complaint to Harold Clarke, the Department’s Director, regarding the matter, which Clarke ignored.
North sued Clarke and Jabe, claiming that they violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by discriminating against secular speech and banning gifts lacking “penological justification.”
Clarke and Jabe moved to dismiss the case, arguing that North lacked standing, since the policy does not apply to non-inmates and claiming that the prison policies do not violate anyone’s free speech rights, since the policy allowed Goode to buy Thomas’ written poetry.
Judge Spencer refused to dismiss the case.
Spencer rejected the officials’ claim that the policy did not constrain North’s speech. “The First Amendment protects North’s right to communicate with Goode, which extends to his ability to give Goode ‘The Caedmon Collection.’ The policy injures him in that right,” the judge found.
Clarke and Jabe also argued that the First Amendment merely protects the communication of ideas, not the form in which ideas are communicated.
Judge Spencer disagreed.
“Taking the defendants’ argument to its logical conclusion, a citizen would suffer no direct injury if the government prevented him from writing a political slogan on a placard rather than stating the slogan verbally,” the judge wrote.
Spencer found that the policy’s determination of spoken-word content as acceptable or unacceptable on the basis of whether or not its content is religious “limits North in his ability to communicate with Goode” and thus implicates the First Amendment. Spencer rejected Clark and Jabe’s claim that they did not violate the Equal Protection Clause because the policy merely distinguishes between certain kinds of property, not people, and thus does not apply to North.
The Clause “prohibits the unjustified classification and restriction of constitutionally-protected conduct,” said Spencer. Since Clarke and Jabe prevented North’s secular – but not his religious – communication, “the defendants must demonstrate that the distinction furthers a legitimate penological interest,” the judge found.
Thomas’ famous Welsh lilt, which won fame for his recordings and public readings, also factored into the ruling. Spencer agreed with North’s claim that “Thomas’ unique voice adds to the literary value of the work he reads.”
“Since Thomas’ voice is unique, North’s interest will not be vindicated by simply allowing him to send Goode a transcription of Thomas’ poetry,” Judge Spencer ruled.