Facts of the Case

A class action was instituted in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California by inmates of California penal institutions, challenging the constitutionality of certain state prison regulations relating to the censorship of prisoners’ incoming and outgoing personal mail, and restricting access to a prisoner by investigators of the attorney-of- record to investigators who were members of the bar or licensed private investigators, thus banning the use of law students or legal paraprofessionals to conduct attorney-client interviews. The mail censorship regulations authorized censorship of statements that unduly complain or magnify grievances, expression of inflammatory political, racial, or religious, or other views, and matter deemed defamatory or otherwise inappropriate. The three-judge District Court enjoined continued enforcement of the regulations and ordered the submission of new regulations for the court’s approval, holding that (1) the mail censorship regulations violated the


(1) Should a district court abstain from determining the constitutional validity of administrative rules established by the California Department of Corrections when there were state laws addressing the validity of such regulations?(2) Does the Constitution compel California to give law students and legal paraprofessionals the full range of privileges accorded to attorneys in their meetings with inmates?


No and Yes. Justice Lewis F. Powell wrote for a unanimous Court and affirmed the lower court’s opinion. The Court held that it was proper for the district court to refuse to abstain from deciding the constitutionality of the regulations. The Court further held that the censorship of direct personal correspondence created incidental restrictions on the right to free speech for both prisoners and their correspondents. Therefore, the speech could only be restricted if it furthered a substantial government interest and was narrowly tailored to further that interest. Under this rule, the policy censoring mail was unconstitutional.Justice Thurgood Marshall filed a concurring opinion, which Justice William J. Brennan joined. Justice Marshall emphasized his opinion that the prison authorities did not have a general right to open and read all incoming and outgoing prison mail.Justice William O. Douglas wrote separately that prisoners were still entitled to all constitutional rights which were not curtailed by procedures that satisfied all the requirements of due process.

Case Information

  • Citation: 416 US 396 (1974)
  • Argued: Dec 3, 1973
  • Decided Apr 29, 1974