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HRDC Wins Summary Judgment in North Carolina Prison Censorship Case

On March 27, 2024, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina granted in part and denied in part the Human Rights Defense Center’s (HRDC) motion for summary judgment in a civil rights action it filed against the North Carolina Department of Adult Correction (DAC) and several of its employees for censorship of HRDC’s monthly publications, Criminal Legal News (CLN) and Prison Legal News (PLN).

HRDC has over 200 CLN and PLN subscribers confined by DAC, which censored issues of the magazines between December 2018 and April 2020, as well as HRDC’s 2019 annual report. DAC also added HRDC to its “master list of disapproved publication[s]” for one year from November 6, 2019, placing a blanket ban on all HRDC publications during that period. After the prison system failed to respond to any administrative appeals, HRDC filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. After conducting discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

The Court utilized the familiar four-factor test set out in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), to determine that HRDC’s constitutional rights had been violated. First, it found no “valid, rational connection” between the regulation and the legitimate governmental interest used to justify it. Citing Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401 (1989), the Court noted that the Supreme Court of the U.S. has disapproved prison censorship without an individualized assessment. The blanket ban also violated DAC’s own publication policies and a previous consent decree requiring it to uniformly apply those polices on an individualized basis. Case-law also disfavored blanket bans, including an HRDC suit in neighboring Virginia, Human Rights Def. Ctr. v. S.W. Va. Reg’l Jail Auth., 396 F. Supp. 3d 607 (W.D. Va. 2019). DAC further permitted other newspapers into its facilities without any screening whatsoever.

The blanket ban also violated the second Turner factor because alternative means of exercising their right did not remain open to prisoners; Rather, the Court said, the ban “inherently stifle[d] any exercise of HRDC’s and its subscribers’ rights to communicate with each other by prohibiting any communication between them.” The third and fourth Turner factors also failed since DAC had already conceded the impact of accommodation on prison resources was manageable with its own policy against blanket bans that it ignored.

As the Court turned to censorship of the September 2020 issue of PLN, DAC admitted during discovery that it should not have censored it. “This admission eliminates any possible rational connection between defendants’ legitimate interests and the withholding of this publication,” the Court concluded. Censorship of the June 2020 issue—for containing COVID-19 information also contained in other publications not censored—similarly failed.

However, censorship of the December 2020 CLN, the December 2018 and April 2021 issues of PLN, as well as HRDC’s 2019 annual report, was upheld. DAC vaguely claimed that they posed a threat of inciting disorder or violence, and the Court said with the “heavy deference” it owed to the prison system that it could not call that “incorrect or pretextual.”

HRDC also asserted that its due process rights were violated when DAC failed to provide notice of these rejections, nor of the blanket ban, and then failed to respond to its appeals. The Court agreed that “[t]he law on these issues is clear-cut. A publisher is entitled to notice and an opportunity to be heard when a prison disapproves one of its publications.” Since DAC offered no evidence that it did so, except for a claim about specific magazine issues that were rejected, HRDC was entitled to summary judgment on these claims, with a jury trial required to resolve the conflicting claims about notice for specific magazine issue rejections.

Turning at last to the question of relief, the Court found that qualified immunity (QI) shielded DAC from money damages for all but HRDC’s due-process claims, since that was the only one on which prior case law was clear. Yet QI is no shield from “requests for injunctive or declaratory relief,” so the Court permanently enjoined DAC from similar violations in the future and requested additional briefing from the parties on specific parameters of the injunction.

HRDC was represented by attorneys Ari S. Meltzer of Wiley Rein LLP in Washington, D.C., and Elizabeth G. Simpson of EMANCIPATE NC in Durham, as well as in-house litigation director E.J. Hurst II. See: Hum. Rights Def. Ctr. v. Ishee, 2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54465 (E.D.N.C.).  

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Related legal case

Hum. Rights Def. Ctr. v. Ishee