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PLN Settles Oregon Censorship Suit for $55,414.31

On January 29, 2003, the Oregon
Department of Corrections (DOC) agreed to settle a censorship lawsuit filed by Prison Legal News by paying $39,914.31 in fees and costs and $15,500 in damages and changing its policies concerning the processing and censorship of prisoner mail. On April 2, 2002, PLN sued the Oregon DOC for a second time after its officials continued to censor books and mailings sent to Oregon prisoners via standard and media rate mail (AKA "bulk mail"), and also banned PLN's book and subscription flyers as "catalogs," required prisoners to buy books and subscriptions from their prison trust accounts and denied PLN notice and a meaningful opportunity to contest the censorship by not providing PLN with due process notice of the censorship.

PLN had previously sued the Oregon DOC over its ban on bulk mail and won a significant victory on this issue in the Ninth circuit court of appeals. See: Prison Legal News v. Cook, 938 F.3d 1145 (9th Cir. 2001). On remand, PLN was awarded an injunction prohibiting the censorship of its mailings based on the postal classification of its mail and requiring due process if its mail was censored. PLN was also awarded around $58,000 in attorney fees in that case [PLN, Apr. 2001]. The defendants obtained qualified immunity from money damages.

Despite the injunction, Oregon prison officials continued censoring PLN's mail based on its postal classification and did not provide due process notice when they did so. PLN filed its second lawsuit claiming that the defendants had retaliated against PLN for its first lawsuit by erecting new barriers between PLN and Oregon prisoners. This included the ban on catalogs, the ban on gift subscriptions, claiming PLN was not an "approved vendor," etc.

After conducting written discovery and before the filing of summary judgment motions, the parties agreed to settle the lawsuit. For its part, PLN agreed to dismiss the lawsuit. The Oregon DOC agreed to deliver all mailings, including catalogs, renewal notices, fund-raisers, etc., from PLN to Oregon prisoners regardless of the postal classification. It also agreed that PLN is an approved vendor for all Oregon prisons that gift subscriptions and publication purchases will be allowed without registration or similar action by subscribers. The DOC also agreed to propose changes to the Oregon Administrative Rules at its next rule review cycle that catalogs for books and magazines are not banned by any rule. They also agreed that PLN is entitled to notice of any censorship, PLN can appeal any censorship directly to the Oregon DOC's central mail administrator with the DOC paying for the remailing of the censored materials if an error was made in the censorship. The Oregon DOC retains the authority to censor publications based on content, such as escape plans.

The Oregon DOC agreed to pay PLN $15,500 to compensate for the damages PLN suffered as a result of the challenged censorship practices. They also agreed to pay PLN's attorney fees of $38,699 and costs of $1,215.31, at hourly rates of $285 an hour for local counsel and $300 an hour for Seattle counsel. Because there were no prisoner plaintiffs in the case, none of the restrictions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act apply. The Oregon DOC also agreed to purchase a two year subscription to PLN for all 13 of its prison law libraries and to inform Oregon prisoners of its availability. The district court retains jurisdiction for one year to enforce the settlement. The injunction from PLN v. Cook is unaffected and remains in force.

PLN was represented on a contingency basis by Marc Blackman of Ransom and Blackman in Portland, Oregon and Michael Gendler of Gendler and Mann in Seattle, Washington. PLN would like to thank its attorneys for their excellent representation in this case as well as our Oregon subscribers who assisted PLN and its counsel in developing the facts to support its case. The settlement is significant because it is the largest damage settlement in a prison censorship case involving a publisher that PLN is aware of. See: Prison Legal News v. Schumacher, USDC DOR, Case No. 02-428-MA.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Schumacher

The settlement is in the brief bank.