Thornburgh v. Abbott

Facts of the Case

Federal Bureau of Prisons regulations generally permit prisoners to receive publications from the outside, but authorize wardens, pursuant to specified criteria, to reject an incoming publication if it is found to be detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution or if it might facilitate criminal activity. Wardens may not reject a publication solely because its content is religious, philosophical, political, social[,] sexual, or . . . unpopular or repugnant, or establish an excluded list of publications, but must review each issue of a subscription separately. Respondents, a class of inmates and certain publishers, filed suit in the District Court, claiming that the regulations, both on their face and as applied to 46 specifically excluded publications, violated their


Does the First Amendment prohibit the Federal Bureau of Prisons from denying prisoners access to certain publications?


No. Justice Harry A. Blackmun delivered the opinion for the 6-3 majority. The Court held that there is a substantial penological interest in denying access to certain publications because it is necessary to maintain the security and order of the prison. However, the limitation on the prisoners’ First Amendment rights must be no greater than what is necessary to the preserve the penological interest. Therefore, the Federal Bureau of Prisons may deny access to publications that include threats to security of the prison or may incite violence among prisoners.In his opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that, while “penological interests” may be highly ambiguous, prison officials often require broad discretion to “prevent internal disorder.” Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. and Justice Thurgood Marshall joined in the opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

Case Information

  • Citation: 490 US 401 (1989)
  • Granted: Jul 28, 1987
  • Argued: Nov 8, 1988
  • Decided May 15, 1989