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Human Rights Defense Center Files Censorship Suit Against Illinois DOC

by Derek Gilna

The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the parent organization and publisher of Prison Legal News, filed suit in federal court in Chicago on February 13, 2018, arguing the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) had censored or refused to deliver its publications sent to state prisoners in violation of its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, monetary damages, and attorneys’ fees and costs. A motion for a preliminary injunction was filed in conjunction with the complaint.

The defendants in the case include IDOC director John Baldwin and the wardens of all IDOC facilities; the suit alleges that “certain prisons within the state of Illinois have withheld all or part of issues of Prison Legal News, as well as books published and/or distributed by HRDC.”

One of the attorneys representing HRDC, Alan S. Mills with the Uptown People’s Law Center, said the IDOC often fails to deliver the publications and then does not explain the reason for the non-delivery. “They check off the little box sometimes, which says ‘security,’ but that’s all they say. So there’s no way for us to know which articles they think are a problem, let alone why they think they’re a problem. These are reported legal decisions [in PLN] – so we can’t understand at all why there would be an objection.”

According to HRDC, “The Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution requires that publishers receive notice of and be allowed to challenge restrictions on prisoners’ receipt of mail. Regulations, policies, or practices that do not provide these minimum procedural safeguards are invalid. Fourteenth Amendment rights are also violated where procedural safeguards are not followed as applied to a particular publisher.”

The complaint contends that HRDC’s “monthly journal and other publications ... contain political speech and social commentary, which are core First Amendment rights and are entitled to the highest protection afforded by the U.S. Constitution,” and cites specific examples of censorship at several Illinois state prisons, including Big Muddy, Decartur, Menard, Stateville, Sheridan and Pinckneyville. The case remains pending, with the district court taking the motion for a preliminary injunction under advisement at an April 19, 2018 hearing.

In addition to the Uptown People’s Law Center, HRDC is represented by the law firms of Sidley Austin LLP and Latham & Watkins LLP, and by HRDC general counsel Sabarish Neelakanta and staff attorneys Dan Marshall and Masimba Mutamba. This lawsuit is the latest filed by HRDC over widespread censorship by prison and jail officials nationwide. See: Human Rights Defense Center v. Baldwin, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:18-cv-01136. 

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Related legal case

Human Rights Defense Center v. Baldwin