The Second Circuit has decided an extraordinarily important case, Burns v. Martuscello, in which the court held that prison officials violated an inmate’s First Amendment rights when they tried to coerce him into being an informant. Writing that “compelled speech presents a unique affront to personal dignity,” the court decided that prison officials acted unconstitutionally when they placed Burns in solitary confinement in retaliation for his refusal to snitch.
The court noted that snitching in prison can be especially dangerous, thus heightening prisoners’ First Amendment interest in refraining from speech. The court also reasoned that forcing prisoners to snitch is analogous to forcing a person on the street to talk to the police–something the Fourth Amendment prohibits. Finally, and importantly, the court rejected the government’s claim that forcing inmates to snitch is necessary to maintain safe prison conditions. “Coercing inmates to serve as informants,” wrote the court, “is, at best, an exaggerated response to prison concerns.”
This case has broad potential implications. Prisoners are often required to debrief or inform in order to avoid discipline or harsher conditions of confinement. Prisoners, moreover, typically have reduced constitutional rights as compared to non-prisoners. If inmates cannot be pressured to snitch, many other people including suspects, arrestees, criminal defendants, and immigrants, all of whom are often pressured to inform, may have new constitutional protections.
The Marshall Project covers the case here: Is There a Right Not to Snitch?