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Inmate sues over the 'right' to read Facebook from prison

Federal appeals court rejects inmate's claim of a First Amendment right to receive printouts of Facebook pages through the U.S. mail.

A Pennsylvania prison inmate is waging a novel legal battle -- for a supposed First Amendment right to Facebook.

Mark Nixon, who is incarcerated in Frackville, Pa., filed a federal civil rights lawsuit after he was denied access to printouts of Facebook pages sent through the U.S. mail, which prison officials labeled "unacceptable correspondence" and discarded.

A federal appeals court rejected his lawsuit on Friday, ruling that Nixon had not demonstrated that his First Amendment rights -- which are limited during his incarceration -- have been violated.

"Inmates' right to receive and send mail can be restricted for legitimate penological interests," the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (PDF).

The judges noted the Facebook page rejections didn't relate to Nixon's "ability to access the courts to challenge his sentence or conditions of confinement," and dismissed his complaint as merely "a single, isolated interference with his personal mail."

Excerpt from inmate Mark Nixon's lawsuit alleging that prison officials violated his civil rights.
Excerpt from inmate Mark Nixon's lawsuit alleging that prison officials violated his civil rights. Click to enlarge.

Nixon claims that he "has been and will continue to be irreparably injured" by prison officials' no-Facebook policy," which he alleges violates his free speech and due process rights." He had asked for an injunction against the mail room ordering them to "stop media" printouts.

Prisons have been wrestling with prisoner access to Facebook for years, though it usually happens when inmates conceal phones -- not when they try to keep abreast of status updates and other news through the mail.

Inmates have used the social network to threaten enemies, taunt police, and even "friend" corrections officials.

Last year, Facebook said it was working with prison officials to delete accounts that belong to inmates that are still in use after incarceration (idle accounts are unaffected). The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said at the time that it had confiscated 7,284 cell phones smuggled into prisons in one six-month period in 2011, up from only 261 during all of 2006.

A page at shows Nixon as having a maximum release date of September 2013 and lists his Gmail account address as well. A Pennsylvania state government Web site shows Nixon is currently in the Mahanoy prison, an all-male, medium-security prison in Schuylkill County.