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HRDC Lawsuit: Kentucky DOC Guilty of Censorship, Violations of Due Process and Equal Protection

On July 20, 2017, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) filed a federal lawsuit against the Kentucky Department of Corrections for violating its free speech, due process and equal protection rights.

HRDC, a Florida-based non-profit organization and publisher of Prison Legal News, contended that the Kentucky DOC was guilty of censoring books sent to prisoners, violating equal protection laws by selectively blocking some materials but not others, and infringing upon the organization’s due process rights by not allowing HRDC to appeal censorship decisions.

Specifically, HRDC stated in its complaint that prison officials had unconstitutionally blocked the delivery of numerous books mailed to Kentucky state prisoners, including the Prisoner Diabetes Handbook, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Law and the Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual, among others. Dozens of books sent to prisoners over a 12-month period were censored. On several occasions, HRDC received notices indicating the books were rejected for a variety of reasons, such as having “colored paper/envelope/ink,” “stickers,” being a “free book” or “not directly [sent] from publisher or authorized distributor.”

Kentucky DOC policies ban books not directly purchased by prisoners; they also ban books from publishers not included on a pre-approved vendor list. Those practices violated HRDC’s rights under the First Amendment as well as its Fourteenth Amendment right to due process notice, the organization argued in its complaint.

“The actions taken by the Kentucky Department of Corrections violate the free speech rights of not only the Human Rights Defense Center, but all other constitutionally-protected publishers that have an absolute right to communicate with prisoners held by the department,” said HRDC executive director Paul Wright. “While it seems preposterous that a book offering information about diabetes would be banned, the fact is that the content of the books doesn’t matter. The Kentucky DOC’s disregard for free speech and due process rights is reckless and intentional.”

Prior to filing suit, HRDC contacted Kentucky prison officials three times but never received a response; those efforts included two letters sent directly to the General Counsel for the Department of Corrections.

“Prisoners have already been stripped of many of their freedoms, but the [Kentucky DOC] isn’t stopping there. It is illegally denying prisoners constitutionally-protected, free speech materials that might actually teach them about their rights while behind bars,” Wright stated.

HRDC, which has successfully litigated dozens of other First Amendment censorship cases nationwide, is seeking damages, attorney fees and costs in addition to injunctive relief. It is represented by attorneys Camille Bathurst, Gregory Belzley, Bruce Johnson with the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, and HRDC attorneys Sabarish Neelakanta, Dan Marshall and Masimba Mutamba. See: HRDC v. Ballard, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Ken.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00057-GFVT. 

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Related legal case

HRDC v. Ballard