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HRDC Settles Censorship Lawsuit with Johnson County, Kansas Jail for $50,000 and Policy Changes

As a result of the settlement, Johnson County agreed to a more specific form of mail processing that will permit HRDC publications, as well as other books and publications, to be delivered to prisoners at the jail. The agreement also provided: “Defendants agree to pay HRDC a total of $50,000 in full and final settlement of all claims for damages, fees, and costs that were brought in this matter or could have been brought in this matter.”

As noted in its complaint, “HRDC, a not-for-profit charitable organization, sends books, magazines, and other correspondence to.... educate incarcerated persons about their legal and civil rights and their options for accessing education while incarcerated....(and) engages in core protected speech and expressive conduct on matters of public concern, which are entitled to the highest protection afforded by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

The complaint also noted that, “since July 2020 Plaintiff can identify at least fifty-eight (58) items that were rejected by Defendants, including ten (10) copies of Prison Legal News, ten (10) copies of Criminal Legal News, ten (10) copies of PYHS [Protecting Your Health and Safety], ten (10) copies of the Prisoners’ Guerilla Handbook, ten (10) informational brochure packs, one (1) court ruling, and seven (7) follow up letters.”

Jails and prisons across the country have engaged in systematic censorship of newsletters, magazines, and other educational publications. HRDC is the only organization which regularly sues and argues that this censorship is unconstitutional: “These policies banning books and magazines are blatantly unconstitutional. And I have no idea why they keep doing it in Kansas,” said Paul Wright, executive director of HRDC, which previously successfully sued Shawnee County over similar policies.

HRDC’s complaint sought injunctive relief, and filed a motion for preliminary injunction to enjoin defendants from enforcing these restrictive policies, but suffered a setback when the judge denied the motion, and compelled the parties to move into the discovery phase to prepare for trial.

According to the judge, “Johnson County official who oversees the mailroom has reviewed the materials submitted as exhibits to HRDC’s preliminary-injunction motion and indicated that they were rejected because they violated either the sticker/label policy or the package pre-approval policy, based on the stamps on the returned mail. Had the materials been pre-approved or not sent in packages, or not had stickers or labels on them, they would not have been rejected.”

The court’s December 4, 2020 order also noted that since, “September 24, 2020, HRDC has sent copies of Prison Legal News in a manner that complies with both the sticker/label policy and the package pre-approval policy. Some of the inmates who were sent copies have added it to their subscription list and have received their copies of Prison Legal News.”

Unlike other jails and prisons sued by HRDC, it appears that Johnson County officials recognized that despite its stated goal of preventing contraband from entering their jail through mailings, it was counterproductive to bar a nationally-recognized non-profit from mailing publications to prisoners, and agreed to settle the case without going to trial. As part of the settlement the jail agreed to deliver HRDC books and magazines to the jail’s prisoners and to provide due process notice in the event any were censored. The jail also agreed to pay $50,000 in damages and fees and the court retained jurisdiction to enforce the settlement.

HRDC was represented by HRDC general counsel Dan Marshall, Max Kautsch of Kansas and Bruce Johnson of the Seattle law firm Davis Wright Tremaine. See: HRDC v. Board of Commissioners of Johnson County, USDC D KS, Case Number 2:20-CV-2447. 

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Related legal case

HRDC v. Board of Commissioners of Johnson County