The National Lawyers Guild filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in the Supreme Court on November 27 in the case of Hammer v. John D. Ashcroft, et al., in support of death row inmates’ right to person-to-person meetings with reporters.
The Guild's brief focuses on the fact that the current Bureau of Prison’s (BOP) proscription of in-person communication is inappropriately based on the anticipation that the speech will be offensive to government officials and the public discourse. The BOP’s interest in preserving security within the penal system does not permit it to censor speech absent a legitimate concern to justify the restriction of this fundamental right to free speech and free association.
The general public has a right to hear, through the media, first-hand accounts of current conditions in prison, whether they reveal unsafe and abusive behavior or simply the banal realities of life on death row and what brought them there. In-person communication also affords the wrongly accused a forum to proclaim their innocence. Lack of direct access to the media decreases the chance that claims of innocence will be heard and investigated.
The NLG brief argues that in Hammer v. Ashcroft, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to uphold the fundamental right to free speech and to afford transparency to the penal system’s workings by reversing a recent trend of curtailing inmate’s rights. The brief notes, “This Court’s past decisions granting deference to corrections officials are premised upon a limited judicial role in policymaking. But the wisdom of the Constitution in leaving policy decisions to the more democratically responsive branches is undermined if this Court does not uphold First Amendment principles that ensure an informed public, able to serve as a meaningful check on those branches and the danger of policymaking based on prejudice rather than facts.”
The brief was authored by Professor Zachary Wolfe of the George Washington University and NLG Executive Director Heidi Boghosian. The full text of the brief is available on our amicus curiae page.
The National Lawyers Guild was founded in 1937 and is the oldest and largest public interest/human rights bar organization in the United States. Its headquarters are in New York and it has chapters in every state.