Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) – A federal judge in Chicago has ruled that a long-standing ban on all newspapers at one of the nation’s largest jails violates inmates’ right to free speech.

Judge Matthew Kennelly said the Cook County Jail has some legitimate concerns that newspapers pose security risks, including that they could be fashioned into weapons or contain stories that might incite gang violence. But he concluded that the no-exceptions prohibition goes too far.

Kennelly wrote that the total ban, which the jail adopted 31 years ago, was an “extreme response” and “extinguishes an inmate’s ability to exercise his First Amendment right to read newspapers.” He noted in the ruling, which was released Monday, that federal and Illinois state prisons don’t have such bans.

The nearly 10,000-inmate jail does permit other paper-based items, including books, letters, cards and even magazines. But the jail argues in court filings that newspapers with their physical properties and content are unique. The judge cited fears that inmates could use papier-mache techniques to shape and harden newspapers, potentially into crude knives or shanks.

Another of the jail’s central concerns is that information in daily Chicago newspapers about street-gang turf battles could provoke violence between gang-affiliated detainees.

But Kennelly says there are options short of full prohibitions. He suggested making newspapers available only at the jail library, which, among other things, would enable staff to remove articles about rival gangs.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, issued a statement Tuesday repeating its concerns. But it added that it respected the ruling and was “making arrangements to provide our detainee population with access to newspapers in a controlled and safe manner.”

In earlier filings, the jail contended that inmates do have news alternatives: They can watch television. Kennelly rejected that argument, pointing out that guards or inmate consensus decide what TV channel to watch.

The ruling stems from a 2013 lawsuit that was filed by former inmate Gregory Koger after the jail refused to let him have a Chicago Tribune mailed to him. The activist was serving a 300-day term for misdemeanor criminal trespass, simple battery and resisting arrest.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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