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PLN Partly Prevails in Censorship Suit against Georgia Jail; $10,000 in Damages

PLN Partly Prevails in Censorship Suit against Georgia Jail; $10,000 in Damages

In March 2013, a federal district court granted a preliminary injunction to Prison Legal News that prohibited jail officials in Walton County, Georgia from refusing to deliver PLN’s publications to prisoners. The court declined to grant an injunction against the facility’s postcard-only policy and revised book policy, however, and following a bench trial PLN and the county agreed to settle the remaining claims in the case.

Beginning in January 2012, the Walton County Jail (WCJ) censored 59 issues of PLN’s monthly publication, copies of the book Protecting Your Health and Safety, and informational brochures and subscription renewal letters sent to prisoners at the jail, plus 27 letters mailed by PLN’s attorney, Lance Weber. PLN moved for a preliminary injunction after filing suit in September 2012.

The lawsuit challenged the jail’s postcard-only policy that had resulted in the censorship of PLN’s publications and correspondence. WCJ’s rationale for the policy was that it had “encountered several problems with inmates receiving contraband from outside the prison.” Jail officials also claimed the policy saved the mailroom employees two to three hours each per day in processing mail. The district court found WCJ had met the test in Turner v. Safley,482 U.S. 84 (1987), and denied a preliminary injunction as to the postcard-only policy.

But the court also held that PLN met the Turner standard for an injunction against WCJ’s periodicals policy, which prohibited individual magazine subscriptions. The court rejected the jail’s argument that the policy was necessary due to fire and sanitation concerns. The jail allowed prisoners to have other flammable materials, such as legal work and religious texts, which would let prisoners set fires “whether or not they have subscription publications for fuel.”

WCJ claimed to have enacted a new policy after PLN filed suit that allowed prisoners to obtain periodicals and softbound books directly from a bookstore or publisher. Nonetheless, the jail challenged PLN’s status as a publisher, and the district court found it was inconclusive as to whether the new policy addressed PLN’s censorship claims.

The court held that Prison Legal News was entitled to a preliminary injunction to require WCJ to deliver PLN’s publications to prisoners, though jail officials could review and censor the publications if they threatened the safety, security or efficiency of the facility.

Regarding WCJ’s book policy, the district court said PLN had the burden of proving the new policy violated its rights and had not yet met that burden, thus an injunction could not issue. The court also held PLN did not prove that the return of Weber’s letters was intentional. WCJ argued it had “mistakenly censored Lance Weber’s communications”; therefore, an injunction could not issue on that claim either.

Accordingly, on March 26, 2013 the district court granted in part and denied in part PLN’s motion for a preliminary injunction. The case proceeded to a bench trial in February 2014, and judgment was entered on August 29, 2014. The court ruled in favor of the defendants on PLN’s First Amendment claim as to the jail’s postcard-only policy and in favor of PLN on its due process claim. In the latter regard, the court held that WCJ’s “notice and appeal policy, which only applies to postcards, violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Following the district court’s ruling, the parties entered a stipulation of dismissal as to PLN’s due process claim on October 20, 2014, with Walton County agreeing to pay $10,000 in damages plus attorney fees and costs to be determined by the court. PLN subsequently filed a motion for $262,767.25 in fees plus $11,871.76 in costs, which remains pending. Prison Legal News was represented by Atlanta attorneys G. Brian Spears, W. Gerald Weber and Jeffrey R. Filipovits; Decatur attorney Albert Wan; and Human Rights Defense Center general counsel Lance Weber. See: PLN v. Chapman,U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ga.), Case No. 3:12-cv-00125-CAR.


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Related legal case

PLN v. Chapman