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PLN and HRDC Win Consent Judgment Against Louisiana Sheriff in Censorship Case

On May 18, 2010, Prison Legal News (PLN) and its parent organization, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), won another battle against censorship by prison and jail officials.

In 2009, PLN and HRDC sued Jack A. Stephens, Sheriff of St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana, after staff at the St. Bernard Parish Prison refused to deliver to prisoners issues of PLN and Protecting Your Health and Safety, a prisoners’ rights handbook distributed by PLN. The failure to deliver these publications, PLN and HRDC argued, was a violation of the First Amendment.

Separately, PLN and HRDC contended that the prison’s failure to provide PLN with notification of rejected publications violated due process.

PLN and HRDC moved for a preliminary injunction in January 2010, but the district court delayed ruling on the motion while the parties engaged in settlement negotiations. On May 18, 2010, with the assistance and oversight of the court, the parties agreed to resolve PLN and HRDC’s requests for injunctive relief through the entry of a consent judgment.

The consent judgment requires St. Bernard Parish to deliver all withheld issues of PLN to prisoners. Previously rejected copies of Protecting Your Health and Safety must also be delivered.

The sheriff agreed to adopt a new policy related to incoming publications as part of the consent judgment. Under the new policy, a publication will be rejected only if it contains materials that would “threaten security, good order, or discipline of the institution or that may facilitate criminal activity, or are otherwise prohibited by law.”

In making this assessment, staff cannot reject a publication “solely because its content is religious, philosophical, political, social, or sexual, or because its content is unpopular or repugnant.” Further, a list of banned publications cannot be established.

If a publication is rejected, both the prisoner and sender must receive notification of the rejection and be given an opportunity to file an administrative appeal. The new incoming publications policy is not limited to PLN and HRDC, but applies to all publishers and distributors that send reading material to prisoners at the St. Bernard Parish Prison. In addition to the extensive injunctive relief, the jail also paid $10,000 in damages and $30,418 in attorney fees and costs.

PLN and HRDC were ably represented by New Orleans attorneys Mary E. Howell and Liz Cummings and former HRDC general counsel Dan Manville. See: Prison Legal News v. Stephens, U.S.D.C. (E.D. La.), Case No. 2:09-cv-07515-JCZ-SS.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Stephens