It can’t be easy being on ice. Prisoners rarely, if ever, get to go anywhere. Dates? Forget it. An all-nighter watching trash TV? Only if you are in the honor block. Most prisons don’t even allow inmates to smoke anymore. So, shouldn’t a fellow, consigned to years of ennui, be allowed the reading material he chooses? That was the issue before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A convicted Oregon sex offender might be able to subscribe to the Green Lanterncomic book, but he has no federal constitutional right to buy magazines containing sexually explicit materials and fantasy role-playing games, a federal appeals panel ruled Tuesday.
But the panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals left unresolved the question of whether Afshin Bahrampour has a right to receive Muscle Elegance and White Dwarf magazines under the Oregon Constitution, which provides greater free-speech protections than its federal counterpart.
Bahrampour, 36, was convicted in 1998 of sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl in 1995 when he briefly worked as an assistant coach at a Beaverton gymnastics academy. He was sentenced to eight years and three months in prison.
While an inmate at Snake River Correctional Institution, Bahrampour subscribed to the Green Lantern comic books and purchased copies of White Dwarf and Muscle Elegance.
. . . Prison officials rejected issues of Muscle Elegance because of sexual content and White Dwarf because of role-playing.
Magazines with sexual conduct, according to a corrections expert, “may result in prohibited sexual activity or unwanted sexual behavior, including rape.”
Role-playing games are prohibited, prison officials said, “to prevent inmates from placing themselves in fantasy roles that reduce accountability and substitute raw power for legitimate authority,” according to the 9th Circuit ruling.
Under normal circumstances, the access to such content by the general public, it would be outrageous to claim people don’t have a right to read any of these publications. After all, despite speculation, there is not sufficient research to firmly establish a relationship between violent and sexually explicit pictures or games and pathological behavior. However, Bahrampour’s situation is not normal. The Court was not convinced a prisoner can decide for himself what to read.
“We are persuaded that White Dwarf magazine fits the definition of role-playing materials prohibited by (prison rules) because it simulates violent battles in an imaginary fantasy world in which the roll of dice determines which leaders have the power to crush their enemies,” Judge Arthur Alarcon wrote for the panel.
After reviewing a copy of Muscle Elegance, the court said the magazine clearly had sexual content, including an advertisement for a video in which a bikini-clad woman applies “brutal scissors domination” to a man.
The court noted that prisoners do not lose all constitutional rights while incarcerated, but they must be balanced against legitimate prison management interests of corrections officials.
The ban on sexually explicit and role-playing materials, although restricting Bahrampour’s First Amendment rights, was reasonable, the court ruled.
The plaintiff’s status as an inmate with a history of sexual violence was perceived as reason enough to curtail his choice of periodicals. This type of issue more often arises in the context of public schools. There, the rights of students to freedom of expression can be restricted to prevent disruption and foster an environment of learning.
Oregon’s constitution is thought to be the most liberal in regard to freedom of speech of all the states.’ The right to observe sexually explicit conduct, such as nude dancing, is taken for granted here. However, will the Oregon Supreme Court extend liberal application of the principle to include people who have forfeited the rights of free men and women? Bahrampour’s may be the test case that determines the outer limits of the right to read. But, for now, he doesn’t have much to smile about.