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HRDC Files Censorship Suit Against New Mexico Jail; Court Orders Dismissal Based on Mootness

by Steve Horn

The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which publishes Prison Legal News, filed a federal lawsuit on April 16, 2018 against the San Miguel County Detention Center in Las Vegas, New Mexico for censoring PLN publications in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Beginning in February 2016, according to the complaint, the jail began rejecting PLN’s monthly publication and other materials sent to prisoners. In total, 39 pieces of mail sent to the San Miguel County Detention Center were returned to HRDC, including 16 issues of PLN and 19 softcover books.

HRDC argued that, under the First Amendment, such censorship constituted a violation of its right to free speech. It was also a violation of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment because the jail provided no notice to HRDC before returning the publications with labels saying “Refused.”

The complaint sought damages for claims that included “the suppression of HRDC’s speech; the impediment of HRDC’s ability to disseminate its political message; frustration of HRDC’s nonprofit organizational mission; the loss of potential subscribers and customers; and the inability to recruit new subscribers and supporters, among other damages.”

HRDC requested a jury trial on its claims against the San Miguel County Detention Center, as well as injunctive and declaratory relief and compensatory damages due to the censorship of its publications. Contemporaneously with the complaint, a motion for a preliminary injunction was filed asking the district court to order the jail to refrain from enforcing its unconstitutional mail policies while the case remained pending.

The defendants moved to dismiss based on mootness, arguing that the jail “has a constitutional mail policy that allows the delivery of Plaintiff’s publications to inmates and the Jail has now remedied the misapplication of that policy through retraining of all staff.” Warden Matt Elwell acknowledged that jail employees had been misapplying the policy, and told the district court he was “committed to continuing [the] current policy of allowing publications to be mailed into the facility directly from the publisher.”

The court granted the motion to dismiss on August 20, 2018, finding the injunctive claims were moot due to the remedial actions taken by the jail and denying HRDC’s motion for a preliminary injunction, but allowing the filing of an amended complaint. HRDC has sought leave to amend and the case remains pending. See: Human Rights Defense Center v. San Miguel County, U.S.D.C. (D. NM), Case No. 1:18-cv-00355-LF-SCY. 

 

Related legal case

Human Rights Defense Center v. San Miguel County