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HRDC Sues Oklahoma County Jail for Censoring Books

by Steve Horn

The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which publishes Prison Legal News, filed a lawsuit on May 9, 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma against Pontotoc County and Sheriff John Christian, for blocking the distribution of HRDC books sent to prisoners at the county jail.

HRDC alleges that beginning in April 2017, jail staff began rejecting two books – the Habeas Citebook and Protecting Your Health and Safety.

“Defendants censored these books and did not deliver them to the intended prisoner recipients at the Jail. Since April 2017, HRDC separately sent thirty of the books ... to various prisoners at the Jail,” the complaint states. “Twenty-nine of the books were returned to HRDC in their original packaging with writing on the outside stating simply ‘Refused.’”

HRDC contends that the censorship policy at the Pontotoc County jail violates both its First Amendment rights as a book publisher seeking to distribute reading materials and its due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Fourteenth Amendment applies because jail officials “failed to provide HRDC any notice or opportunity to appeal these censorship decisions,” the complaint notes. HRDC is seeking injunctive and declaratory relief, as well as monetary damages.

In addition to its complaint, HRDC filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, asking the district court to prohibit Pontotoc County from enforcing the jail’s unconstitutional mail policy while the case proceeds. Citing longstanding First Amendment jurisprudence, HRDC argues the violation of its rights constitutes “irreparable harm.”

“The irreparable harm suffered by HRDC is concrete, severe, and ongoing. Defendants have censored and will continue to censor HRDC’s books sent to prisoners without due process, thwarting HRDC’s core protected speech on government policies, prisoner rights, jail conditions, and the criminal justice system,” the complaint states. “Accordingly, HRDC will clearly continue to suffer irreparable harm if a preliminary injunction does not issue.”

In its motion, HRDC included scanned photos of the packages containing the returned books. The case remains pending; HRDC is represented by attorneys Bruce Johnson with David Wright Tremaine, LLP and Robert D. Nelon with Hall Estill Hardwick Gable Bolden & Nelson, and by HRDC general counsel Sabarish Neelakanta and staff attorneys Dan Marshall and Masimba Mutamba. See: Human Rights Defense Center v. Board of County Commissioners of Pontotoc County, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Okla.), Case No. 6:18-cv-00149-RAW. 


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Related legal case

Human Rights Defense Center v. Board of County Commissioners of Pontotoc County