Stanton Foundation First Amendment clinic settles case in a win for clients

Students in the Stanton Foundation First Amendment Clinic recently scored a victory on behalf of the Human Rights Defense Center, a prison rights advocacy organization and the publisher of Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. With the clinic’s assistance, HRDC filed a federal lawsuit against Tennessee’s Marshall County Jail, challenging the sheriff’s withholding of HRDC’s magazine that were sent to inmates. Clinic students, supervised by Assistant Clinical Professor of Law G.S. Hans, worked with HRDC’s legal team and co-counsel from the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine.

HRDC filed the suit in March 2019, alleging unconstitutional censorship after Marshall County Jail officials rejected more than 100 issues of Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. HRDC publishes the magazines to help educate prison inmates and other interested parties about the legal rights of incarcerated people and defendants.

HRDC’s complaint, drafted by clinic students in the Spring 2019 semester, stated that most magazines were “returned to HRDC with no explanation,” while a small number were returned with a handwritten notation, “No staples allowed.” County officials did not give notice to HRDC that its publications were rejected for delivery, nor was the organization afforded an opportunity to challenge that censorship.

“Last summer, the clinic helped negotiate a preliminary injunction against the jail that mandated that the magazines will be delivered. The jail assumed responsibility for removing the staples and providing notice if magazines were undeliverable,” Hans said. “In the fall semester, clinic students drafted discovery documents, prepared for settlement negotiations, and participated in the judicial settlement conference facilitated by Judge [Joe B.] Brown.” The conference led to a settlement agreement.

Under the terms of the settlement, the negotiated preliminary injunction has now been made permanent, ensuring delivery of HRDC’s publications; the settlement also awarded attorneys’ fees and costs to the HRDC litigation team.

First Amendment Clinic students worked on the case throughout 2019. HRDC team members included 2019 graduates Ian Joyce, Jordyn McCarley, and Dylan Thayer; Elliott Bowles and Greg Kass, Class of 2020; and Eileen Bautista Fay and James Truong, Class of 2021.

“I appreciate the opportunity to work with HRDC in defending the important First Amendment rights at issue in this case, and I’m glad we were able to reach a settlement that ensured Marshall County prisoners have access to information — and that publishers have the ability to reach those who are incarcerated,” Hans said.

The Stanton Foundation First Amendment Clinic introduces students to civil litigation through cases implicating First Amendment rights of individuals and organizations that would otherwise be unable to afford counsel. Since Assistant Clinical Professor G.S. Hans launched the clinic in spring 2019, students have focused on civil litigation at the state and federal levels. This clinic was made possible by a grant from the Stanton Foundation.