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Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry Pays $2,858 Million In Censorship of Prisoner Rights Magazine Litigation

Human Rights Defense Center, June 18, 2024.


For Immediate Release

June 18, 2024

Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry Pays $2,858 Million In Censorship of Prisoner Rights Magazine Litigation

Phoenix, AZ – On May 3, 2024, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (formerly the Arizona Department of Corrections) (“ADCRR”) settled the federal civil rights lawsuit brought against it by the Human Rights Defense Center (“HRDC”) alleging that ADCRR had unconstitutionally censored its monthly publication Prison Legal News (“PLN”). ADCRR agreed to pay $2,650,000.00 to cover HRDC’s attorneys’ fees and expenses in connection with the successful district court litigation. It had earlier been ordered to pay $208,865.62 for appellate fees. This nearly $3 million sum constitutes the largest attorneys’ fee recovery in a prison censorship case in U.S. history.

HRDC is a Florida-based non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of the human rights of people held in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC’s advocacy efforts include publishing PLN, a 72-page monthly publication covering prison-related news and litigation nationwide, and Criminal Legal News, a 56-page monthly publication covering the criminal justice system beyond incarceration. HRDC has distributed both publications to thousands of jails and prisons around the world.

Until 2014, ADCRR prisoners routinely received issues of PLN. That year, however, ADCRR decided to censor numerous issues of PLN, claiming the publication contained “sexually explicit material” in violation of an ADCRR mail policy. The censored PLN issues reported legal cases in which prisoners had been sexually assaulted or harassed by prison staff. ADCRR did not provide HRDC with notice of its censorship decisions or afford HRDC any administrative appeals.

After ADCRR ignored multiple letters seeking to resolve the matter short of litigation, HRDC filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona in 2015, alleging that ADCRR’s mail policy prohibiting prisoners from receiving sexually explicit or suggestive material was unconstitutional both facially and as-applied to the specific issues of PLN, and challenging ADCRR’s failure to provide notice and an opportunity to appeal the censorship under the Fourteenth Amendment.

“It is outrageous that we had to file a lawsuit because Arizona prison officials would censor our award-winning magazine for quoting federal judges’ written opinions on the rights of prisoners not to be raped by prison staff. But even more outrageous is how vigorously they fought this case for nine years to prevent prisoners from learning what their rights are to be free from sexual assaults by staff,” said Paul Wright, HRDC’s founder and executive director. “We are very grateful to our co-counsel at Rosen Bien Galvan Grunfeld and Ballard Spahr for sticking with us and helping HRDC vindicate its fundamental First Amendment right to free speech and to inform Arizona prisoners about their legal rights,” Wright added.

The District Court granted HRDC’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that ADCRR’s mail policy defining sexually explicit material was both facially unconstitutional and as-applied to specific issues of PLN. The court also ruled that ADCRR violated HRDC’s due process rights by failing to provide notice of and an opportunity to appeal the censorship of PLN.

ADCRR agreed to pay HRDC damages for violating its Fourteenth Amendment rights, but appealed the District Court’s First Amendment ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case to the District Court.

The Ninth Circuit concluded the ADCRR’s mail policy defining sexually explicit material was not unconstitutionally overbroad by interpreting the policy as banning “only content that graphically depicts nudity or sex acts.” Textual content, such as PLN articles, must contain more than “a mere mention” of sex and amount to “a level of description akin to that of a painting.” The court did, however, strike down as facially unconstitutional a portion of ADCRR’s policy that permitted ADCRR mailroom staff to censor materials that “may” cause sexual arousal based on an employee’s subjective judgment, rather than on objective criterion. The court applied its narrowed definition of sexually explicit material to the censored issues of PLN, upholding some but not all of ADCRR’s decisions. Prison Legal News v. Ryan, 39 F.4th 1121 (9th Cir. 2022).

The Ninth Circuit also determined that HRDC prevailed on appeal and awarded it attorneys’ fees in the amount of $208,865.62.

On remand, HRDC submitted a motion to the District Court requesting approximately $2,500,000.00 in attorney’s fees and costs for the eight and a half years of litigation its lawyers had engaged in to challenge the ADCRR’s unconstitutional censorship of PLN. The District Court largely agreed with HRDC, ordering ADCRR to pay $2,370,881.67 in attorneys’ fees and $8,426.25 in costs.

Rather than appeal the fee order, ADCRR settled by agreeing to pay $2,650,000.00 in fees and costs.

Most importantly, eventually all of HRDC’s ADCRR subscribers received their previously censored issues of PLN, as a result of this lawsuit.

HRDC was represented in the District Court by attorneys Lisa Ells, Amy Xu, Jenny Yelin and Caroline Elaine Jackson of the San Francisco firm Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP (RBGG); attorneys David Jeremy Bodney and Kennison C. Lay of the Phoenix office of Ballard Spahr LLP; and HRDC in-house counsel Daniel Marshall. HRDC was represented on appeal and both attorneys’ fees motions by RBGG attorneys Lisa Ells, Amy Xu, and Sanford Jay Rosen.

The case is Prison Legal News v. Ryan, USDC (D. Ariz.), No. CV-15-02245-PHX-RO.

Pleadings and orders related to the case may be viewed on HRDC’s website at:

Questions or requests for comment should be directed to HRDC’s Executive Director, Paul Wright, at