ACLU-NC Legal Foundation Announces Successful Settlement of Lawsuit Against North Carolina Prison Officials for Violating Free Speech Rights of Published Author/Prisoner

March 8, 2010 12:00 am

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RALEIGH – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) today announced the successful resolution of a federal lawsuit filed in February, 2009, on behalf of Victor L. Martin, a critically acclaimed author currently incarcerated in the custody of the North Carolina Department of Correction (“DOC”). Mr. Martin has published a series of books in an emerging and popular literary genre known as “urban fiction.” Authors within the urban fiction genre are often younger African-Americans who describe urban settings in ways that readers – many of whom have never read books before – can identify with and understand. Many readers and reviewers have recognized Mr. Martin as an important voice within urban fiction. This lawsuit arose from efforts on the part of the defendants to silence Mr. Martin’s voice.

The lawsuit named as defendants certain officials of the North Carolina Department of Correction, alleging that these individuals violated Mr. Martin’s free speech rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, by arbitrarily and capriciously disciplining Mr. Martin for writing urban fiction during his incarceration. In addition, the lawsuit alleged that the defendants unlawfully seized and destroyed the only copy of a 310-page, handwritten urban fiction manuscript that Mr. Martin spent countless hours writing while housed at Central Prison in Raleigh. The lawsuit further alleged that the defendants did so as punishment for Mr. Martin’s acts of literary expression without providing Mr. Martin with due process before the manuscript was destroyed.

Swain Wood, a noted First Amendment and copyright lawyer in Raleigh who is representing Mr. Martin along with ACLU-NCLF on the case, said “Writing books is not a crime. The First Amendment guarantees that. After being put in prison, Victor Martin discovered that writing books could transform his life for the better and inspire others. He should be commended for that. State officials should be commended for realizing that punishing Mr. Martin for writing books was wrong, and that the old policy was unconstitutional and had to be changed.”

A settlement agreement was finalized and executed late last week, and attorneys for the ACLU-NCLF filed papers in court this morning dismissing the lawsuit. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the DOC must change its policy to allow inmates to prepare a manuscript for publication, for outside typing, for copyrighting or for private use, so long as the inmate does not receive direct compensation for publication of the manuscript. This agreed-upon policy protects a variety of writing, including fiction, non-fiction, poetry and music, lyrics, drawings and cartoons and other writings of a similar nature. The policy also sets out guidelines for DOC handling of an inmate manuscript that might be confiscated for violation of any prison rule, ensuring that such a manuscript would be maintained and not destroyed without providing any notice to the inmate, which is what happened to Victor Martin. Finally, inmates may still receive compensation for published manuscripts, so long as the inmate authorizes a family member to handle all issues and correspondence related to the business aspect of publishing for compensation.

In addition, the DOC overturned ten (10) disciplinary infractions given by DOC guards to Mr. Martin as a result of his writing and paid a total of $10,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees to Mr. Martin and the ACLU-NCLF for violating his constitutional rights and destroying his manuscript.

“I hope that my fellow inmates will understand that positive actions bring positive results,” said Victor Martin. “I personally take no credit for the policy change. The credit goes to the ACLU of North Carolina and [ACLU-NCLF Cooperating Attorney] Swain Wood for taking this case and helping to change the writing policy for all inmates. I will continue to write within the guidelines of this new policy, and I also wish to thank all of my supporters.”

Mr. Martin is represented by W. Swain Wood of Wood Jackson PLLC, in Raleigh, North Carolina, as Cooperating Attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, as well as by Katherine Lewis Parker, Legal Director of the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation. A copy of the settlement agreement is available upon request.

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