Court: media ban does not pass test

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a District Court grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants, ruling there were genuine issues of fact as to why they denied death row inmates from giving face-to-face interviews with the media.

In David Paul Hammer v. John D. Ashcroft, et al., No. 06-1750, Hammer sued Bureau of Prison officials, including then-Attorney General of the U.S., John Ashcroft, and former wardens of the federal prison in Terre Haute, Harley Lappin and Keith Olson. Hammer, a federal prisoner on death row at the time, claimed his First Amendment and equal protection rights were violated when the prison enforced a policy preventing death row inmates from giving face-to-face interviews with the media and from talking to the media about other inmates.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing the new policy was for the protection of the inmates and security reasons. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Hammer was one of the first death row inmates housed at the Special Confinement Unit (SCU) at the federal prison in Terre Haute in 1999. That year, Hammer gave three face-to-face interviews with the media with no issues. In late 2000, Lappin ordered Hammer not to speak about other inmates during media interviews. Hammer was disciplined shortly thereafter for providing information about another inmate but not for giving the interview.

After an interview with SCU inmate Timothy McVeigh aired on national television in 2000, a U.S. senator wrote an angry letter criticizing the Bureau of Prison officials for allowing the McVeigh interview. In April 2001, Ashcroft announced in a press conference that all SCU inmates would not be allowed to have in-person interviews with the media at all and that they may speak only to the media by telephone during their daily 15-minute allotment of phone time. The media policy signed by Lapin at the Terre Haute prison stated these rules applied only to SCU inmates sentenced to death.

The 7th Circuit examined Hammer's appeal by applying a test found in Turner v. Safely, 482 U.S. 78, 84 (1987) - there must be a legitimate governmental interest in justifying the ban; the impact of accommodating the interview on inmates, guards, and other resources; there must be alternative means of exercising the right; and whether there are obvious, easy alternatives to the restriction.

Hammer submitted evidence to show the ban was not a result of prison security, as the officials suggested, but because of outrage over McVeigh's interview. Ashcroft explained his distaste for the content of the interviews given by death row inmates as the reason why the new policy was instituted. Other evidence also supports that there are not alternative means for Hammer to give an interview in person. Lappin stated the ban was to prevent the broadcast of the interview, but does not explain why interviews that are not recorded are banned. Because there are questions of material fact as to why the ban was instituted and whether there are any other outlets for Hammer to access the media, summary judgment in favor of the defendants should not have been granted, wrote Judge Ilana Rovner.

Because there are also issues of material fact on Hammer's equal protection claim, summary judgment should not have been granted on that claim.

The 7th Circuit also addressed Hammer's claims that the District Court erroneously denied his three motions to recruit counsel and his Rule 56(f) motion for continuance. The District Court did not meaningfully consider the complexity of this case and erred in not granting his motion for counsel. The court also abused its discretion in denying his Rule 56(f) motion for a continuance because he did not have counsel to help him specify which documents he needed during the discovery process.

The case is remanded for further proceedings.

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  1. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  2. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

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  4. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.

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