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Michigan Sheriff Settles PLN Censorship Suit for $295,000

by Derek Gilna

In June 2017, Prison Legal News obtained a substantial settlement from the Livingston County, Michigan Sheriff’s Office in a censorship lawsuit. The Livingston County jail agreed to settle after five years of litigation that challenged the facility’s mail policies and practices.

According to PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann, the settlement was “a win not only for our organization, but also for the First Amendment.”

PLN had filed suit in U.S. District Court in Detroit, Michigan in 2011, objecting to the jail’s policy of limiting mail to postcards only, rejecting publications and restricting legal mail to correspondence from legal organizations that had a pre-existing relationship with a detainee. [See: PLN, Sept. 2011, p.19].

Since most prisoners at the jail were awaiting trial and held for relatively short periods of time, those policies amounted to censorship without any security justification, effectively shutting prisoners off from the outside world. The settlement ended several of the restrictive mail practices.

According to the agreement, “Livingston County shall accept up to 30 subscriptions per month of the Prison Legal News addressed to specific prisoners regardless of whether the subscriptions are paid or are gifts, and shall deliver the Prison Legal News to prisoners provided, of course, that the prisoners are still housed at the Livingston County Jail.” Likewise, the jail was obligated to accept up to 30 PLN books per month addressed to specific prisoners.

The settlement also provided that if the jail “censors the materials either by non-delivery of the item or by redacting portions of the item, [they] shall give notice of the censorship in writing to the inmate to whom the material was addressed as well as to [PLN] within seven (7) calendar days.” Livingston County further had to pay $295,000 in damages, attorney fees and costs.

Livingston County Sheriff Michael Murphy called the resolution of the case a “win” for the county. “I’m glad it’s behind us. I’m frustrated that there was such a large settlement, but had it went to trial and had we lost, we would have ended up paying attorney fees anyway,” he said. See: Prison Legal News v. Bezotte, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:11-cv-13460-DPH-EAS.

The lawsuit and settlement followed litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the same jail for refusing to allow them to correspond with prisoners at the facility. In that case, the county was ordered to deliver the ACLU’s letters, to be opened in the presence of prisoners – which the sheriff said was done to ensure that the attorney mail “does not contain drugs or escape plans.” The county settled the ACLU’s suit only after appealing to the Sixth Circuit, losing, and being denied certiorari by the U.S. Supreme Court. [See: PLN, April, 2017, p.54].

Friedmann noted that PLN only “resort[s] to courts ... when corrections officials enforce unconstitutional policies that violate our First Amendment rights as a publisher and the rights of prisoners to receive our publication, books and other reading materials.... If prisons or jails do not have unconstitutional mail policies we would have nothing to sue over – it’s as simple as that.”

Prison Legal News was represented by attorneys Daniel Manville, Thomas M. Loeb and Brian J. Prain, and by Human Rights Defense Center counsel Sabarish Neelakanta and Lance Weber. 

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