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Washington Prisoner Has First Amendment Right to Threaten to File Suit

by Derek Gilna

In June 2012, following a dispute with officials at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP), prisoner John Thomas Entler filed written complaints in which he said he would file lawsuits and seek criminal charges if his grievances were not addressed. He was then disciplined for those statements under a Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) regulation that bars prisoners from “intimidating or coercing prison staff.”

After Entler objected to what he considered unjustified deductions from his prison trust account and other issues, including the failure of a staff member to make legal copies, he filed several complaints pursuant to DOC grievance procedures. When he received a work assignment that he argued violated his religious beliefs, he again complained and threatened to file suit.

Shortly thereafter, prison officials “issued Entler a serious infraction for his July 19 letter to the Religious Programs Manager threatening to sue to protect his religious freedom ... [because] Entler’s threat to sue was intimidating and coercive in violation of [DOC] Rule 663.”

Upon being found guilty of infractions by prison staff and disciplined, Entler threatened to contact the governor and the U.S. Department of Justice, and was subjected to additional discipline. He filed a § 1983 civil rights suit in federal district court, but the court dismissed the case, holding he did not have an actionable First Amendment retaliation claim against prison officials.

The Ninth Circuit acknowledged in a October 6, 2017 opinion that running a prison “is an inordinately difficult undertaking,” but upheld Entler’s right to tell prison officials he planned to file suit. “Regardless of the prisoner’s misdeeds – however reprehensible – [p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution,” the Court of Appeals wrote. The most fundamental of constitutional protections that prisoners retain is the First Amendment right to file grievances and pursue civil rights litigation, because “[w]ithout those bedrock constitutional guarantees, inmates would be left with no viable mechanism to remedy prison injustices.”

The Court continued, “In essence, it is illogical to conclude that prison officials may punish a prisoner for threatening to sue when it would be unconstitutional to punish a prisoner for actually suing.”

Entler was thus allowed to proceed on his First Amendment claim related to his threats to take legal action. “With regard to the threat to file a criminal complaint,” the appellate court wrote, “we disagree with the district court’s implicit conclusion that Entler has not alleged an actionable First Amendment retaliation claim.” However, as it was not clearly established at the time that such a threat was constitutionally-protected conduct, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on that claim.

Entler was represented by attorney Jared R. Wigginton on appeal; the case remains pending on remand. See: Entler v. Gregoire, 872 F.3d 1031 (9th Cir. 2017), rehearing and rehearing en banc denied. 

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Related legal case

Entler v. Gregoire