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PLN Prevails in Censorship Suit against Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office

PLN Prevails in Censorship Suit against Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office

by Gary Hunter

In March 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted summary judgment in favor of Prison Legal News (PLN) against the Virginia Beach Correctional Center (VBCC), and granted declaratory and injunctive relief. Further, the court later awarded over $93,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs.

From May 2012 through August 2012, the VBCC mailroom rejected all issues of PLN sent to prisoners at the facility, but failed to provide proper notice to PLN or conduct a proper review of such censorship decisions when they were appealed. VBCC claimed that PLN’s publication violated a variety of institutional policies, including ads that contained “sexually explicit material ... ordering forms with prices, catalogs [and] brochures.”

PLN filed suit against Sheriff Kenneth Stolle, accusing the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office (VBSO) of First Amendment and due process violations. [See: PLN, Oct. 2013, p.47]. In December 2014 the district court upheld the VBSO’s policy of banning publications “that contain ‘ordering forms’ with prices,” but reserved judgment as to the claim related to sexually explicit materials.

Before the court could make a final ruling, the VBSO changed the jail’s mail policy twice in an effort to obfuscate their constitutional violations. They then filed for summary judgment, arguing the case was moot due to the policy changes.

PLN filed its own summary judgment motion, arguing the case was not moot because the VBSO was free to return to its unconstitutional practices if the district court did not make a final ruling on the original policy. The court agreed.

On March 31, 2015, upon granting PLN’s summary judgment motion, the district court found that “...the former VBSO policy was so broad that it lacked a ‘valid, rational connection’ to [penological] objectives,” that PLN had met its burden to prove the policy was unreasonable, and that the “Sheriff’s voluntary decision to update and improve the VBSO sexually explicit materials policy in advance of a Court ruling on this issue clearly demonstrates that this factor favors PLN.”

The district court granted declaratory judgment against the VBSO, finding that the jail’s former mail policy ran “afoul of the Constitution,” and also granted injunctive relief which precluded the VBSO from reinstating its former policy. PLN prevailed on its due process claim and claim related to censorship of sexually explicit materials.

PLN then moved for an award of attorneys’ fees as the prevailing party, and on September 8, 2015 the district court granted a total of $85,189 in fees and $8,731.10 in costs. PLN was represented by Charlottesville attorneys Jeffrey E. Fogel and Steven D. Rosenfield, as well as Human Rights Defense Center general counsel Lance Weber and staff attorney Sabarish Neelakanta. See: Prison Legal News v. Stolle, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Vir.), Case No. 2:13-cv-00424-MSD-TEM.

Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Stolle