Thornburgh v. Abbott

PETITIONER:Richard L. Thornburgh
RESPONDENT:Jack Abbott, et al.
LOCATION:Federal Bureau of Prisons

DOCKET NO.: 87-1344
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 490 US 401 (1989)
GRANTED: Jul 28, 1987
ARGUED: Nov 08, 1988
DECIDED: May 15, 1989

Steven Ney – Steven Ney argued the case for the respondents.
William C. Bryson – Deputy Solicitor General William C. Bryson argued the case for the petitioners.

Facts of the case

Jack Abbott and other prisoners were denied access to publications that Richard Thornburgh, the U.S. Attorney General at the time, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP) deemed to be detrimental to penological interests. FBP regulations allow publications that may pose a threat to the security and discipline of prisons or that promote criminal activity to be rejected. Material cannot be rejected based on its political, philosophical, or distasteful nature, and prison officials have the burden of showing why the restriction was necessary and how the denied material was detrimental to penological interests. Abbott and others sued and argued that the restriction on certain publications violated their First Amendment rights. The district court held that prisons had a right to deny access to certain publications and that prison wardens must be given broad discretion in their duties to maintain the security of the prison, but their discretion must not limit the prisoners’ First Amendment right more than what is necessary to protect the government’s penological interests. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed and held that the prison officials had the burden of showing how the denied material is detrimental to penological interests.


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