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PLN Wins Nevada Censorship Suit

Beginning in January 2000, the Nevada Division of Prisons (DOP) began censoring Prison Legal News in all of its prisons, affecting 21 Nevada prisoners who subscribed to PLN .Prison Legal News was never afforded any notice of the censorship nor given an opportunity to appeal. Eventually prison officials told PLN we were banned because "inmate newsletters" were not allowed in Nevada prisons and if they could censor prisoner to prisoner correspondence somehow they could do the same to PLN . Efforts by PLN to resolve the matter administratively were unsuccessful. In July, 2000, PLN filed suit in federal court in Reno, Nevada, claiming that the blanket ban on PLN was unconstitutional and violated PLN 's right to free speech and due process. [ PLN , September 2000.]

In August 2000, district court judge Howard McKibben granted PLN 's motion for a preliminary injunction enjoining the DOP from censoring PLN . The court then ordered the parties to attempt to mediate the case. A mediation conference in Reno resulted in a stipulated judgment in September 2000.

Under the terms of the stipulation, the Nevada DOP paid PLN $5,000 in damages and revamped its censorship policies and practices. The DOP agreed to promulgate a policy holding that Nevada prisoners can subscribe to the publications of their choice; only a warden can censor a publication and then only if s/he determines that the publication is detrimental to legitimate penological interests. No publication can be excluded in perpetuity and each issue must be individually reviewed. There will be no separate categories of "inmate publications" or "inmate newsletters."

Whenever a publication is censored, the warden must notify the prisoner and the sender/publisher that the material has been censored and that independent review of the censorship is available by writing the director of the Nevada DOP. Prisoners can grieve the censorship through the prison grievance system and will be allowed to review the censored materials in order to perfect their appeals unless doing so would threaten prison security. Wardens cannot censor publications because their content is religious, political, social, sexual or philosophical nor because their content is unpopular, repugnant or disagreed with by the warden.

The Nevada DOP posted a notice in all of its prisons stating that PLN was no longer banned in Nevada and that prisoners could subscribe to PLN . The notice gave PLN 's address. As part of the settlement, PLN agreed to provide a one year set of back issues and to extend the subscriptions by one year for the 21 affected subscribers in Nevada prisons.

The parties agreed not to seek to modify, terminate or otherwise challenge the order for a period of five years. The district court will have the power to enforce the order upon appropriate motion. The court approved the judgment, essentially a consent decree, on September 22, 2000. The judgment largely revamps the Nevada DOP's censorship scheme.

The defendants refused to negotiate on the matter of PLN 's attorney fees, claiming a multitude of frivolous reasons as to why they claimed PLN should not be entitled to its fees. In addition to ignoring three demand letters by PLN before the suit was filed, the Nevda Attorney Generals office refused to settle the suit shortly after it was filed when fees were only at $22,000 and on essentially the same terms.

All told, the court awarded PLN $44,058.57 in its initial attorney fee application. Plus, an additional $5,900 for attorney fees spent litigating the initial attorney fee award. With interest, the total attorney fee and cost award in the case was a little over $50,000. Because no prisoners were parties to the suit, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) did not apply and PLN 's counsel were paid $200 an hour for their services.

Throughout the litigation the corporate media in Nevada gave extensive, and very favorable, coverage including several editorials supporting judge McKibben's preliminary injunction order.

PLN was very capably represented in the case by attorneys Don Evans of Reno, Nevada, and David Fathi of the ACLU's National Prison Project in Washington, D.C. This is the latest in a series of successful censorship lawsuits by PLN .Prison Legal News has won lawsuits against prison systems and jails in Utah, Washington, Alabama, Oregon, Michigan and Alabama. The preliminary injunction and stipulated judgment are unpublished. See: Prison Legal News v. Crawford , (USDC DNV. Case No. CV-N-00-0373-HDMCRAM).

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Crawford

Documents in the case are in the brief bank.