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HRDC Files Censorship Suit Against Tennessee County Jail

On March 7, 2019, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), PLN’s parent organization, filed suit in federal court against Marshall County, Tennessee, Sheriff Billy Lamb, Jail Administrator Sabrina Patterson and other defendants, raising claims of unconstitutional censorship at the county jail.

According to the complaint, since March 2018 the jail had rejected at least 100 pieces of mail sent to prisoners, including 54 issues of Prison Legal News and 46 issues of Criminal Legal News. “Most of these items were returned to HRDC with no explanation,” while some sample issues were returned “with the handwritten notation: ‘No Staples Allowed.’”

HRDC did not receive notice of the rejection of its publications nor was it afforded an opportunity to challenge that censorship in violation of its due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. HRDC stated in its complaint that the “Defendants’ policies, practices, and customs are unconstitutional both facially and as applied to HRDC,” and that their “actions and inactions were and are motivated by ill motive and intent, and were and are all committed under color of law and with reckless indifference to HRDC’s rights.”

This was not HRDC’s first encounter with Marshall County and its Sheriff’s Department. In February 2014, PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann, who resides in Tennessee, submitted a public records request to then-Sheriff Norman Dalton for records related to the county jail. When that request was repeatedly denied, with the sheriff demanding that Friedmann appear in person to submit the records request contrary to state law, Friedmann filed suit. The sheriff testified that he drove to Nashville in an attempt to visit Friedmann’s residence and reported him to the Department of Homeland Security. A trial court ruled in Friedmann’s favor, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ordered the county to pay attorney fees, and $8,982.50 in fees was awarded in January 2016. [See: PLN, May 2016, p.32; Jan. 2015, p.32].

“Based on our prior experience with Marshall County, it comes as no surprise that the Sheriff’s Department is enforcing unconstitutional policies that result in the censorship of our publications sent to prisoners at the county jail,” Friedmann stated. “Once again we have filed suit to protect our rights, and once again we expect to prevail, with county taxpayers having to pick up the tab for the sheriff’s actions. The blatant and unjustified censorship of mail sent to prisoners is both unconstitutional and un-American.”

For violating its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, HRDC is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief as well as nominal, compensatory and punitive damages, plus attorneys’ fees and costs. 

“HRDC’s magazines educate prisoners about their constitutional rights,” said Sabarish Neelakanta, HRDC’s General Counsel and Litigation Director. “Banning such protected speech from reaching this vulnerable population is an affront to the First Amendment and contrary to well-established constitutional principles afforded to publishers seeking to communicate with prisoners.” 

Vanderbilt University Law School’s Stanton Foundation First Amendment Clinic is serving as co-counsel. 

“We’re pleased to be working with HRDC in defending the important First Amendment rights at issue in this case,” said G.S. Hans, Assistant Clinical Professor of Law and the director of the Clinic. “Ensuring that prisoners have access to information – and that publishers have the ability to reach those who are incarcerated – is critical to protecting the free speech rights of this vulnerable population.”

The case remains pending, with HRDC filing a motion for a preliminary injunction on March 18, 2019. HRDC is represented by G.S. Hans with the First Amendment Clinic, by attorney Bruce E.H. Johnson with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, and by HRDC general counsel Sabarish Neelakanta and staff attorneys Masimba Mutamba and Daniel Marshall. See: Human Rights Defense Center v. Marshall County, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 1:19-cv-00031. 


Additional source: HRDC press release (March 11, 2019)

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Related legal case

Human Rights Defense Center v. Marshall County