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Court Grants Preliminary Injunction to PLN in Sacramento County Jail Censorship Suit

On March 8, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge John A. Mendez entered a preliminary injunction against the County of Sacramento, California in a lawsuit that alleges unconstitutional censorship of publications sent to prisoners at the county’s jail.

Prison Legal News filed the lawsuit in federal court in April 2011. According to the complaint, Sacramento County jail officials refused to deliver PLN’s monthly publication to prisoners and failed to notify PLN of that censorship in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The jail claimed that PLN’s publication was rejected because it contains small staples (used to hold the magazine together) and includes mailing labels or stickers. Jail officials said the staples and labels presented a security risk.

In his order granting PLN’s motion for a preliminary injunction, Judge Mendez rejected that rationale, finding the jail’s censorship of publications sent to prisoners was “an exaggerated response to any security concerns posed by PLN.”

The court further held that PLN “has demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its First Amendment claim,” and that the defendants’ “policies and practices including refusing to deliver PLN publications and mailings to prisoners because they contained staples and/or a mailing label are not supported by a legitimate penological interest and do not leave open alternative means for PLN to exercise its First Amendment rights.”

“The taxpayers of Sacramento County should be very concerned about their elected officials wasting their money defending violations of constitutional rights,” said attorney Ernest Galvan, who represented PLN at the preliminary injunction hearing. “The alleged justification for these acts of censorship is literally paper thin.”

Judge Mendez noted the jail could remove the staples and labels from PLN’s monthly publication, so long as the publications were delivered to prisoners. PLN recently prevailed in another censorship lawsuit involving a county jail in South Carolina, which had also cited staples as justification for refusing to deliver PLN’s publications. That case settled in January 2012 with the county agreeing to make policy changes and paying $100,000 in damages and $499,900 in PLN’s attorney fees and costs. [See: PLN, Feb. 2012, p.14; Nov. 2010, p.38].

“Jail officials, including those in Sacramento County, cannot use pretexts such as staples or mailing labels to justify censorship of publications in violation of the First Amendment,” said PLN editor Paul Wright. “This is particularly true when the jail allows other publications with staples to be delivered to prisoners, but not PLN – which evidences unconstitutional content-based censorship.”

PLN’s lawsuit against Sacramento County, which remains pending, also seeks declaratory relief, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney fees and costs. PLN is represented by Sanford Jay Rosen, Ernest Galvan, Kenneth Walczak and Blake Thompson of Rosen, Bien & Galvan, LLP, a San Francisco law firm, as well as Human Rights De-fense Center chief counsel Lance Weber.

We will report the eventual outcome in this case. See: Prison Legal News v. County of Sacramento, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:11-cv-00907.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. County of Sacramento