Prisoners’ freedom of expression rights are to some extent curtailed as an inevitable consequence of their incarceration. However, as the High Court made plain in a guideline case, they are very far from being extinguished.
The case concerned a prisoner who was serving a life sentence for murdering his father. He continued to protest his innocence and, as part of his effort to clear his name, he wished to participate in a recorded telephone interview with an investigative journalist with a view to radio broadcast.
Refusing permission for the interview to take place, the governor of the prison where he was serving his sentence found no urgent need for him to communicate with the journalist by phone, rather than by written correspondence. He further considered that a media interview with a prisoner who had committed such a heinous crime might cause distress to victims or outrage public sensibilities.
Upholding the prisoner’s judicial review challenge to that decision, the Court noted that it is inevitable and proper that one consequence of imprisonment following a criminal conviction is that a prisoner’s freedom of expression is curtailed. However, prisoners are not deprived of all rights of free speech, nor lawfully could they be.
The prisoner’s request was supported by his mother and grandmother and no victim of his crime, other than his father, had ever been identified. The question of whether victims might be distressed by the interview did not, therefore, arise. There was no rational support for the governor’s apparent view that, no matter what the content or purpose of the interview, it would be a public outrage for the media to be allowed to talk to a prisoner convicted of murdering his father.
In directing himself that the prisoner’s request could only be exceptionally granted in urgent circumstances, the governor misapplied relevant prison service guidelines. He also erred in treating as irrelevant the journalist’s professional opinion that the interview was essential if the prisoner were to have the opportunity to get his arguments across to the public. The governor was directed to reconsider the prisoner’s request in the light of the Court’s decision.