PLN Obtains $50,000 Settlement in Tennessee Jail Censorship Suit
On March 16, 2016, a Tennessee federal district court granted PLN’s motion for a preliminary injunction to protect its Fourteenth Amendment rights from infringement by the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office. The county subsequently agreed to pay a $50,000 settlement.
PLN’s complaint, filed in October 2013, sought declaratory and injunctive relief as well as damages after jail officials refused to deliver copies of PLN’s monthly publication to prisoners. The defendants included Sheriff Wayne Anderson. [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.24].
PLN then moved for a preliminary injunction to enjoin the Sullivan County jail from enforcing its postcard-only mail policy, which had been adopted on October 14, 2011, and to require jail officials “to afford Plaintiff, prisoners, and correspondents due process notice and an opportunity to challenge Defendants’ censorship decisions.”
The district court initially denied the motion because Sullivan County had abandoned its postcard-only policy shortly after the complaint was filed. However, the court allowed PLN to amend and seek a preliminary injunction on its Fourteenth Amendment due process claim.
PLN filed a renewed motion, but the defendants again abandoned their objectionable policy and asserted the motion for a preliminary injunction was therefore moot. They also argued PLN lacked standing.
The district court found PLN had standing with respect to its claims that the defendants censored attempted communications with prisoners at the Sullivan County jail in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
In reviewing the mootness argument, the court evaluated whether the defendants met the burden of showing: 1) unambiguous change; 2) change as a result of deliberation; and 3) consistent application of the new policy or adherence to new conduct.
The district court held the defendants had made an unambiguous change and brought the jail’s mail policy into compliance with due process requirements. That change, however, “was made during the heat of litigation,” which led the court to find there was “no evidence of substantial deliberation.” Further, the defendants had submitted “no affidavits from the jail administrators affirming there is no intention of returning to the prior policy or one that does not adequately provide the minimum procedural safeguards.”
The jail’s prior postcard-only mail policy was found to be facially deficient, and the district court concluded PLN met the factors entitling it to a preliminary injunction. Following that March 2016 order, Sullivan County agreed to settle the case on July 18, 2016, which included a payment of $50,000 to PLN.
“We’re pleased that this case has resolved, and that prisoners at the Sullivan County jail can receive letters from their children and other family members instead of having their correspondence restricted to postcards,” said PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann. “Many people in jail are awaiting trial, have not been convicted and are presumed innocent, and retain most of their rights – including their rights under the First Amendment.”
PLN was represented by Nashville attorney Tricia Herzfeld and staff attorneys with the Human Rights Defense Center. See: Prison Legal News v. Anderson, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tenn.), Case No. 2:13-cv-00266-JRG-MCLC.
Additional source: Kingsport Times News
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Related legal case
Prison Legal News v. Anderson
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tenn.), Case No. 2:13-cv-00266-JRG-MCLC|