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HRDC Receives $25,000 Judgment in North Carolina Jail Censorship Case

by Steve Horn

The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the parent organization of Prison Legal News, obtained a civil judgment in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina in a lawsuit filed against the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office, after accepting an offer of judgment from the defendants.

The case centered around the censorship of publications sent to prisoners at the Columbus County Detention Center. HRDC accepted a $25,000.01 offer of judgment, made under Fed.R.Civ.P. 68, on December 22, 2017 – just four months after the suit was filed. The judgment was inclusive of attorneys’ fees.

The complaint raised both First Amendment free speech claims and Fourteenth Amendment due process claims. It accused the Columbus County Detention Center of censoring six different categories of materials distributed by HRDC, including PLN, books, letters and court opinions.

“Each of these items were individually addressed and separately mailed to prisoners in the detention center,” the complaint stated. “Defendants failed to deliver these items to the prisoners and, in some instances, returned items to Plaintiff’s office via the ‘Return To Sender’ service of the United States Postal Service with the written designation ‘Refused.’”

In total, 28 items were rejected by the jail, including 14 issues of PLN. The complaint noted that the Columbus County Detention Center had a policy of excluding HRDC’s materials. The jail never gave HRDC notice explaining the justification for its policy, in violation of HRDC’s due process rights.

“Defendants failed to explain the penological justification for their censorship decisions, failed to identify the specific mail policy they relied on, and otherwise failed to give meaningful notice of the censorship – all in violation of Plaintiff’s rights under the Fourteenth Amendment,” the complaint stated.

HRDC argued that, due to the policies put in place by the Columbus County Detention Center, the organization was being harmed and deterred from its core mission: distribution of educational reading materials to prisoners. Those damages, the complaint argued, included “the impediment of HRDC’s ability to disseminate its political message; frustration of HRDC’s non-profit organizational mission; diversion of resources; loss of potential subscribers and customers; and inability to recruit new subscribers and supporters,” among other claims.

HRDC was represented by Raleigh attorney Paul M. Cox; the Seattle, Washington law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP; and HRDC general counsel Sabarish Neelakanta and staff attorneys Masimba Mutamba and Dan Marshall. See: HRDC v. Thatcher, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NC), Case No. 7:17-cv-00164-D. 


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Related legal case

HRDC v. Thatcher