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Missouri DOC Must Provide Notice of Censorship

Missouri DOC Must Provide Notice of Censorship

A federal district court in Missouri has approved a settlement agreement that requires Missouri Department of Corrections (MODOC) officials to provide notice when books and publications sent to state prisoners are censored and withheld.

The settlement resolves a class-action suit filed by Bobbie Y. Lane, owner of a publishing company called Caged Potential. In November 2010 and January 2011, the company mailed nine copies of a book titled So Far From Paradise to prisoners at the Crossroads Correctional Center. The book was written by Lane’s cousin, Sultan K. Lane, who was incarcerated at the facility – a maximum-security lock-up in Cameron, Missouri.

The books were withheld under the MODOC’s censorship policy, which did not require that publishers or other senders receive notice when publications were rejected. Alleging that the policy violated the company’s right to due process under the 14th Amendment, Caged Potential sought an injunction requiring the MODOC to notify senders when publications are censored and grant them the right to appeal.

U.S. District Court Judge Nanette Laughrey entered a preliminary injunction on November 15, 2012, requiring the MODOC to provide notice and an opportunity for senders of censored publications to be heard. She also certified a class in the case composed of “all current and future publishers, distributors, and authors of written materials, who mail books, publications, or other written materials to inmates incarcerated in prisons operated by MODOC.”

“There is no question that publishers who wish to communicate with those who, through subscription, willingly seek their view have a legitimate First Amendment interest in access to prisoners” and that “both inmates and publishers have a right to procedural due process when publications are rejected,” Laughrey wrote. The court also held that requiring the MODOC to provide notice of censorship would not impose a burden on the defendants.

The parties then entered into settlement negotiations and formulated a draft plan, under which the “Defendants agree to notify the offenders within its correctional facilities that senders of censored publications, personal correspondence, and pictures will receive notice of censorship decisions.” The parties agreed to the settlement in January 2013.

Prison Legal News (PLN), which was not a named party in the case but would be affected by the terms of the settlement as a class member, petitioned the court to reject the agreement, contending that the proposed settlement was insufficient.

In its June 26, 2014 objection, PLN argued that the settlement agreement should not be approved because “it does not require that publishers and other senders be given notice of the censorship of their mail at the time that the censorship occurs, instead, there is an inordinate delay in between the act of censorship and the provision of due process notice to the sender.”

Additionally, “While the agreement does require notice, it contains no time limit for the provision of such notice nor does it contain a requirement that senders be given an adequate explanation of the reason for censorship.”

The ability of members of the class-action suit to enforce the settlement would be restricted, because “The agreement further prohibits fees and costs for monitoring defendants’ compliance and it unfairly restricts the forum for bringing any enforcement action to the Circuit Court of Cole County, Missouri,” PLN wrote. “These restrictions make the prospect of monitoring compliance prohibitively expensive and would create unfair logistical hurdles for an aggrieved sender, rendering the settlement agreement effectively unenforceable.”

The district court held a settlement approval hearing on July 1, 2014, acknowledging PLN’s objections and ordering the defendants to post notice of the settlement agreement in the law libraries of all Missouri state prisons. Class members had 30 days to file objections to the settlement.

On September 5, 2014, the court held a second hearing and instructed the parties to submit a proposed order approving the settlement agreement. The settlement was approved by the district court and went into effect October 22, 2014.

The plaintiff class members are represented by the ACLU of Eastern Missouri and ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri; PLN’s objections were filed by Lance Weber, general counsel of the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization. See: Lane v. Lombardi, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mo.), Case No. 2:12-cv-04219-NKL.

PLN will report future developments in this case.

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Related legal case

Lane v. Lombardi