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Prison inmates have no constitutional right to give legal advice to fellow inmates, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday. The fact that a communication between inmates contains legal advice does not give it special free-speech protection, the justices said in the case of a Montana inmate. “Augmenting First Amendment protection for inmate legal advice would undermine prison officials’ ability to address the complex and intractable problems of prison administration,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court. “It is indisputable that inmate law clerks are sometimes a menace to prison discipline,” Thomas said. “Prisoners have used legal correspondence as a means for passing contraband and communicating instructions on how to manufacture drugs or weapons.” The justices reversed a lower court ruling that had said Montana authorities wrongly disciplined an inmate over a letter in which he offered legal advice to another inmate. Kevin Murphy, an inmate at the Montana State Prison, was trained by prison officials as a legal clerk authorized to help other inmates. In early 1995, Murphy wrote to a fellow inmate who had been charged with assaulting a guard. Prison rules, however, did not allow Murphy to offer such assistance because the other inmate was in the maximum-security unit. In the letter, Murphy proposed some legal strategies and also offered disparaging remarks about the guard who allegedly had been assaulted. A prison official read and confiscated the letter, which never reached the second inmate. Murphy was disciplined for violating prison rules. Murphy did not contest prison officials’ right to read his letter to the fellow inmate, but he said they should not be able to censor it. Murphy sued, saying prison officials violated his free-speech right to provide legal assistance to other inmates. A federal judge ruled against him, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Murphy’s rights had been violated. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court said the 9th Circuit court was wrong. In 1987, the justices said prison rules that infringe on inmates’ constitutional rights are valid as long as they are reasonably related to legitimate prison interests such as maintaining discipline. Based on that and other rulings, “prison officials are to remain the primary arbiters of the problems that arise in prison management,” Thomas wrote. Giving inmates additional constitutional protection based on the content of their communications would give courts a greater role in overseeing prisons, he added. The justices sent the case back to a lower court to determine whether the discipline imposed on Murphy met the standards of the 1987 ruling. “To prevail, Murphy must overcome the presumption that prison officials acted within their broad discretion,” Thomas said. The case is Shaw v. Murphy, 99-1613. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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