Now with more newspapers Credit: Chandler West/Sun-Times Media

A federal judge just ruled that Cook County Jail’s policy of forbidding inmates access to newspapers—or even newspaper clippings—is unconstitutional. In granting summary judgment, Judge Matthew Kennelly said the sheriff’s office hadn’t made a case for the ban being “reasonably related to institutional security.” The plaintiff, Gregory Koger, who has long since left custody, was awarded nominal damages of one dollar.

The newspaper ban has been in place since 1984, and the sheriff’s office (which runs the jail) justified it to Kennelly on grounds that newspapers are flammable, pile up quickly as litter, clog toilets, can stir up violence inside the jail by informing inmates of gang activity outside, and can be fashioned into papier-mache weapons. Besides, they reasoned, Koger had books, magazines, and letters to read, and he could receive visitors and make phone calls, so he wasn’t dying on the vine. But Koger’s attorneys argued there’s a right to read a newspaper that isn’t satisfied by reading something else, and further argued that the jail’s absolute ban could easily be relaxed. For instance, it could limit the number of papers in a cell at any one time; it could allow inmates to read only out-of-town papers (because these wouldn’t be covering Chicago gang activity); it could make newspapers available only in the jail library.

(But Koger’s attorneys don’t like that last alternative even if they suggested it. Attorney Mark Weinberg told me that if the jail does no more than offer some newspapers in the library, he’ll go back to court. Weinberg also said Judge Kennelly took the litter argument too seriously; he said the average jail stay is 12 days, hardly enough time for an inmate to take out a newspaper subscription and let back issues pile up.)

The two sides will now try to work out a new arrangement at the jail everyone can live with. A spokesperson for Sheriff Tom Dart said in a statement: “While newspapers posed significant fire, sanitation and security issues in the jail, we respect the Court’s ruling and are making arrangements to provide our detainee population with access to newspapers in a controlled and safe manner.”

Koger’s arrest in 2009, which led to this lawsuit, is a story in itself, and the Reader‘s Deanna Isaacs told it. A New York radical, Sunsara Taylor, was asked to speak to the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, then disinvited, and then showed up anyway. As she made a statement Koger recorded it on his cell phone; a plainclothed cop tried to eject him, and in short order Koger was on his belly on the floor in handcuffs. He wound up sentenced to 300 days behind bars, and the last 100 were spent in Cook County Jail in 2013. A supporter sent him books, magazine, a copy of Revolution, which is the “voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA,” and a copy of the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune alone was sent back.