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Human Rights Defense Center v. Union County

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, El Dorado Division

April 17, 2018



          Susan O. Hickey United States District Judge

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. ECF No. 20. Plaintiff has filed a response. ECF No. 26. Defendants have filed a reply. ECF No. 30. The Court finds this matter ripe for consideration.


         This case concerns the constitutionality of the postcard-only policy in force at the Union County Detention Center (“UCDC”) in Union County, Arkansas. Plaintiff Human Rights Defense Center (hereinafter “Plaintiff” or “HRDC”) is a not-for-profit organization that seeks to “educate prisoners and the public about the destructive nature of racism, sexism, and the economic and social costs of prisons to society.” ECF No. 1, ¶ 10. HRDC, through its publishing project Prison Legal News (“PLN”), publishes a 72-page monthly magazine entitled Prison Legal News: Dedicated to Protecting Human Rights. ECF No. 1, ¶ 17. Plaintiff states that Prison Legal News is widely distributed to approximately 2, 600 correctional facilities across the United States, including facilities in all fifty states. ECF No. 1, ¶ 18. Plaintiff states that PLN also publishes and/or distributes various books “designed to foster a better understanding of criminal justice policies and to allow prisoners to educate themselves about related issues, such as legal research, how to write a business letter, health care issues, and similar topics” that may be of interest to prisoners. ECF No. 1, ¶ 19. Plaintiff claims that it also sends prisoners informational brochure packets and important judicial opinions. ECF No. 1, ¶ 20.

         Plaintiff alleges that the UCDC mail policy only allows UCDC inmates to “receive 3x5 or 4x6 postcards as incoming mail.” ECF No. 1, ¶ 23. Plaintiff contends that this policy “effectively [bans] all enveloped correspondence, books and magazines sent by HRDC and others” to UCDC inmates. ECF No. 1, ¶ 22. Plaintiff states that since June 2017, Defendants have “censored” at least fifty-three items sent by Plaintiff to UCDC inmates and that in many instances these items have been returned to Plaintiff via the “Return to Sender” service of the United States Postal Service. ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 24, 25. Many of these returned items were marked as follows:

Union County Sheriff's Dept.
Return to Sender
Reason: Post Cards Only

ECF No. 1, ¶ 24.

         Plaintiff claims that Defendants failed to provide a penological justification for the rejection of HRDC materials, failed to give “meaningful notice” of the rejection, and failed to provide Plaintiff with an opportunity to challenge the rejection of HRDC materials. ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 26, 27. Plaintiff claims it “has a right under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to receive notice and an opportunity to object and/or appeal Defendants' decisions to prevent HRDC's mail from reaching prisoners held in the UCDC” and that the UCDC postcard-only policy violates these rights. ECF No. 1, ¶ 45. Plaintiff also claims that these “restrictions on written speech sent to prisoners at the UCDC are not rationally related to any legitimate penological interest and violate HRDC's First Amendment right to communicate its speech with prisoners.” ECF No. 1, ¶ 28.

         Plaintiff sues the individual Defendants in both their official and individual capacities and seeks declaratory relief, injunctive relief, nominal damages and compensatory damages. ECF No. 1, ¶ 42. Plaintiff also seeks punitive damages against the individual Defendants in their individual capacities. ECF No. 1, ¶ 42.


         In the instant motion, Defendants move the Court to dismiss Plaintiff's individual capacity claims, asserting that the individual Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.

         Determining whether a defendant is entitled to qualified immunity requires a two-step inquiry. Jones v. McNeese, 675 F.3d 1158, 1161 (8th Cir. 2012). First, the court must determine whether the plaintiff has alleged a deprivation of a constitutional right. Cox v. Sugg, 484 F.3d 1062, 1065 (8th Cir. 2007). If so, the court must decide whether the implicated right was clearly established at the time of the deprivation. Jones, 675 F.3d at 1161 (citing Parrish v. Ball, 594 F.3d 993, 1001 (8th Cir. 2010)). “Clearly established” means “[t]he contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.” Id. (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, (1987)). For a right to be clearly established, ...

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