Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether prison inmates possess an independent First Amendment right to assist inmates in legal matters that enhances their constitutional protections. Whether prison officials violated the First Amendment free-speech rights of an inmate when they punished him for the content of his letter.


Reversed and remanded. Petitioning party received a favorable disposition.


Montana State prison inmate Kevin Murphy writes a letter to fellow inmate Pat Tracy that urges Tracy not to plead guilty to a charge of assaulting a guard. Tracy had requested Murphy's assistance in the matter in part because Murphy, a trained inmate law clerk, had assisted Tracy with past legal issues. Murphy's letter stated in part, "It wasn't your fault and I know he provoked whatever happened! Don't plead guilty because we can get at least 100 witnesses to testify that Galle is an over zealous [sic] guard who has a personal agenda to punish and harass inmates. You tell your lawyer to get ahold [sic] of me on this. Don't take a plea bargain unless it's for no more time." Because Murphy was classified as high-security and Tracy was classified as maximum-security, Murphy could not visit Tracy in the prison. Maximum-security inmates could only be visited by an inmate law clerk classified as low-security.

Defendant prison guard Robert Shaw intercepted Murphy's letter and charged him with violating three prison rules: insolence, interference with due process hearings, and conduct which disrupts the orderly operation of the prison. After a hearing officer found Murphy guilty of violating the prison rules against insolence and interference with due process hearings, Shaw sued in federal court, alleging a violation of his First Amendment rights. A federal trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant prison officials. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that inmates possess a First Amendment right to assist prison officials with legal matters. The prison officials appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Prison officials do not violate inmates' First Amendment rights if the prison regulation is reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest. Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). Inmate-to-inmate correspondence poses special security concerns for prison officials. Id.

Importance of Case

The case resolves the split in the federal circuits on whether inmates possess increased First Amendment protection when their communications contain legal advice. The Court's opinion indicates that courts should accord prison officials wide deference in matters of prison administration. Some prison rights advocates argue that the case could affect the willingness of inmates to speak out about prison abuses.

The test articulated in Turner v. Safley applies to all prisoner communications, including legal advice. The Turner test does not evaluate the content of an inmate's speech, but merely examines the relationship between the penological interests and the regulation. Increasing First Amendment protection for inmate legal advice would interfere with prison officials' ability to maintain order and control.

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