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PLN Resolves Censorship Suit Against Oregon County Jail for $51,000 Plus Fees and Costs

In August 2012, Prison Legal News accepted an offer of judgment made by officials in Umatilla County, Oregon to resolve a First Amendment censorship suit filed against the county, the sheriff’s office and several sheriff’s employees.

Approximately two months earlier, PLN had filed suit in federal court alleging that the Umatilla County Jail had “adopted and implemented written mail policies and practices that unconstitutionally: restrict correspondence to and from prisoners to postcards only; prohibit delivery of bulk mail and book catalogs, newspapers, and magazines to prisoners; prohibit delivery of books that have not been pre-approved by the government; and do not afford adequate due process.”

Specifically, PLN claimed that from November 2010 to at least October 2011, the Umatilla County Jail rejected numerous publications that PLN had sent to prisoners, including paperback books (e.g., the Prisoner Diabetes Handbook), book brochures, copies of PLN’s monthly publication, subscription forms and renewal letters, pursuant to the jail’s mail policy.

That policy, adopted in February 2010, restricted prisoner correspondence to postcards only and specified that “No newspapers or magazines shall be permitted.” The jail also refused to deliver bulk mail addressed to prisoners, and required prisoners to obtain “prior approval” before receiving books sent from publishers.

PLN alleged that this censorship interfered with its protected free speech rights under the First Amendment, and also violated PLN’s due process rights because the jail had “failed to provide sufficient notice to PLN of the reason” for the rejection of its publications and correspondence.

PLN sought declaratory and injunctive relief, plus monetary damages – nominal, compensatory and punitive – and attorney fees and costs.

Umatilla County made an offer of judgment in the amount of $51,000 plus costs and attorney fees less than two months after the lawsuit was filed. PLN accepted the offer upon determining that the jail had already “abandoned most of the challenged policies and practices,” and the district court entered judgment against the county on October 17, 2012.

The court subsequently awarded attorney fees and costs to PLN in the amounts of $31,983.80 and $799.89, respectively, on May 16, 2013.

PLN was represented by in-house counsel Lance Weber and Alissa Hull, attorneys Jesse Wing and Katherine Chamberlain with the Seattle law firm of MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, and Marc D. Blackman with the Portland firm of Ransom Blackman LLP. See: Prison Legal News v. Umatilla County, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 1:12-cv-01101-SU.

PLN had filed an unrelated but similar lawsuit in January 2012 alleging unconstitutional censorship due to a postcard-only policy at the jail in Columbia County, Oregon. That suit resulted in a federal district court holding on April 24, 2013 that the jail’s postcard-only policy was unconstitutional. [See: PLN, June 2013, p.42].

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Umatilla County