New York Prisoner Punished for Distributing Pamphlet in Violation of First Amendment, Second Circuit Holds
In 2000, New York state prisoner Mujahid Farid was put in solitary confinement for 90 days (among other sanctions) for helping to write and distribute a pamphlet entitled “The Politics of Parole,” which criticized New York’s parole policies as corrupt and racially discriminatory. The Second Circuit recently held that Farid’s punishment violated his First Amendment rights, because the rules under which he was punished were unconstitutionally vague, and remanded the lawsuit back to the district court for further proceedings to determine whether the defendant prison officials are liable for the violation or are entitled to qualified immunity (reversing the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the defendants on the qualified immunity issue).
Farid was punished under catch-all contraband and smuggling provisions of the New York state prison rulebook. For instance, the catch-all contraband provision reads that “an inmate shall not possess any item unless it has been specifically authorized by the superintendent or designee, the rules of the department or the local rules of the facility.” The Second Circuit panel upheld the district court’s ruling that these provisions were unconstitutionally vague as applied to Farid: they did not provide him with adequate notice of what was prohibited, and
gave almost complete enforcement discretion to prison officials. … Indeed, the catch-all contraband rule allowed prison officials to determine in their unbounded discretion what was and was not “specifically authorized” in the facility.
(Farid v. Ellen, 07-4057-pr(L), 07-4070-pr(XAP), 2d Cir., Jan. 28, 2010, pp. 16-17)