Skip navigation

PLN Settles Censorship Suit Against Virginia DOC

Prison Legal News, Jan. 1, 2010.
Press release - PLN Settles Censorship Suit Against Virginia DOC 2010


Prison Legal News – For Immediate Release

September 23, 2010

Publisher Settles Censorship Suit Against Virginia DOC for $125,250

Richmond, VA – Prison Legal News, a monthly non-profit publication that reports on criminal justice issues, announced today that it had settled a censorship lawsuit filed against the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) for $125,250 in damages, attorney fees and costs.

On October 8, 2009, Prison Legal News (PLN) filed suit against Gene M. Johnson, director of Virginia’s prison system, and other VDOC officials for violating its First Amendment rights by censoring PLN’s monthly publication in state prisons. The VDOC had claimed that PLN was "detrimental to the security, good order, discipline of the facility, or offender rehabilitative efforts or the safety or health of offenders, staff or others," or included "information geared toward a negative perception of law enforcement."

"There are too many instances of exaggerated claims of security and order by prison officials," noted PLN attorney Steven D. Rosenfield. "The managers of these prisons would be better off concentrating on contraband, low-paying salaries of staff and too many Mickey Mouse rules."

VDOC did not provide notification to PLN when reading material was rejected, and prison officials did not let prisoners’ family members or friends buy books or magazine subscriptions on their behalf. Further, prisoners had to obtain permission before they were allowed to order or subscribe to publications. PLN argued in its federal complaint that these policies and practices infringed on its First Amendment right to communicate with and distribute reading material to Virginia prisoners, and prevented PLN from challenging censorship decisions.

To settle PLN’s lawsuit, the VDOC agreed to pay $40,000 in damages plus $83,370 for PLN’s attorney fees and $1,880 in litigation costs, for a total of $125,250. The VDOC further agreed to make policy changes, including to: 1) Remove PLN from its Disapproved Publications list; 2) Notify VDOC wardens that "PLN does not appear to be a publication that contains material that violates agency publication policy"; 3) Ensure that PLN will receive prompt notice of any future censorship decisions by VDOC officials; 4) Allow family and friends of Virginia prisoners to purchase books and publications for them from approved vendors, including PLN; and 5) Allow PLN to correspond with prisoners by sending them subscription brochures, info packets, etc.

The VDOC will post notices of the settlement terms "on existing bulletin boards of each state correctional facility for a period of one year," the settlement will remain in effect for three years, and the district court will retain jurisdiction to enforce the agreement if needed.

"We are pleased that Virginia prison officials chose to respect the First Amendment rights of publishers that provide reading material to prisoners rather than litigate this censorship case," said PLN editor Paul Wright. "However, it would have been better for PLN, prisoners, their family members and Virginia taxpayers if such censorship had not occurred in the first place, which would have made our lawsuit unnecessary."

"The Virginia Department of Corrections has a serious problem with censorship and is regularly violating the First Amendment rights of both prisoners and publishers. This agreement is a major victory for them and for the First Amendment," added PLN attorney Jeffrey Fogel.

The case is Prison Legal News v. Johnson, et al., U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, Case No. 3:09-cv-00068. PLN was represented by Jeffrey E. Fogel and Steven D. Rosenfield in Charlottesville, and by PLN General Counsel Adam Cook.


Prison Legal News (PLN), founded in 1990 and based in Brattleboro, Vermont, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. PLN publishes a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners' rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has almost 7,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website ( that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents. PLN is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center.

For further information, please contact:

Paul Wright
Prison Legal News, Editor
P.O. Box 2420
West Brattleboro, VT 05303
(802) 257-1342

Steven D. Rosenfield, Attorney
Jeffrey E. Fogel, Attorney
913 E. Jefferson Street
Charlottesville, VA 22902
(434) 984-0300