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Athens book shop files First Amendment lawsuit for jail blocking shipment to prisoner

By Joe Johnson

An Athens book shop has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Gwinnett County Jail’s mail policy.

Avid Bookshop asserts that the policy violates its First Amendment rights by denying the ability to mail books to jail residents.

In May of 2023, Avid was approached by customers who requested that Avid mail books to an individual residing at the Gwinnett County Jail. The Jail rejected Avid’s book shipments on the basis that Avid was not an “authorized retailer,” a murky descriptor that the Jail has interpreted to preclude brick-and-mortar bookstores, such as Avid, from communicating with Gwinnett County Jail inmates by sending them books.  

“The jail’s vague policies harm independent booksellers, especially small businesses like Avid Bookshop who are dedicated to bookselling as an expression of our values of progress and community,” said Luis Correa, Operations Manager at Avid. “Incarcerated people have a right to books and we as independent booksellers should be able share our love of reading with them through the books we recommend and sell ourselves. What these policies amount to is unmitigated government censorship.”

The Jail’s “authorized retailer” policy gives the Jail complete discretion to decide who can mail books to Jail residents. This is because the policy has no criteria for designating who is an “authorized retailer,” and no process for becoming an “authorized retailer.” There is also no way to appeal beingdenied “authorized retailer” status. Notes Philomena Polefrone, Advocacy Associate Manager of the American Booksellers Association, “The decision to exclude independent bookstores from the right to send books to prisons while permitting big box retailers and Amazon is unfair and baseless. Independent bookstores must, at the very least, be given a transparent set of policies and allowed due process to become authorized vendors.” 

As further explained by PEN America’s Freewrite project senior manager Moira Marquis, a longtime advocate for books in prisons, "Lists of approved vendors are unconstitutional prior restraints on freedom of speech. Any publisher, bookstore or other book distributor should be allowed to send books to detained and incarcerated people in accordance with the ‘publisher only’ rule upheld by the United States Supreme Court in Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 550-51 (1979). Allowing some publishers and vendors to send books to incarcerated people while excluding others, violates publishers’ rights to free speech and equal protection as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution."

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