Bookseller Says Ga. Jail's Book Policy Is Unconstitutional

By Chart Riggall | March 18, 2024, 2:55 PM EDT ·

A Georgia bookseller filed a federal lawsuit Friday accusing an Atlanta-area sheriff of imposing an unlawful policy that only allows books into the county jail from "authorized retailers" under the guise of security concerns, alleging the practice is arbitrary, subjective, and an "unconstitutional permitting scheme."

Athens, Georgia-based Avid Bookshop said in its complaint that not only are Gwinnett County Sheriff Keybo Taylor and head jailer Benjamin Haynes violating the shop's First Amendment right to communicate with jail inmates, but his policy's use as a security measure is misguided.

"This as-applied ban and prior restraint violates the First Amendment because it is not reasonably related to legitimate penological interests and is an exaggerated response to the jail's security objectives," Avid said.

According to the complaint, Avid said it first became aware of its problems with the Gwinnett County jail's policy last May, when a customer bought three books to send to an inmate. The customer initially tried to send the books to the jail herself, but had them rejected. Avid itself then packaged and sent the books directly, but they were likewise returned.

Another customer likewise sent books to the jail, which were returned to the sender, and later rejected again when sent by Avid as being "not sent from publisher/authorized retailer," according to the suit.

Faced with these roadblocks, the bookshop said that last summer, it spoke directly with a jail deputy. The deputy, Avid said, "stated that because Avid was a local bookstore, friends and relatives could enter the bookstore and place contraband inside the books that were sent to the jail."

The shop's legal counsel then contacted the jail to try and appeal the ban on Avid's books, receiving yet another rejection from the sheriff's office's general counsel.

"Residents can receive books if they come from one of our approved suppliers. This is to ensure that associates of the residents cannot soak pages in drugs or otherwise create safety issues," attorney Dan W. Mayfield reportedly said. "We cannot approve bookstores, like Avid, that are open to the public."

Avid contends the policy is baseless on several grounds, not least of which is the overblown security risks of allowing a local bookshop to send packages to the jail.

"The small number of Avid employees and Avid's interest in preserving its ability to ship books to jail residents weigh in favor of Avid being an equally if not more trustworthy book seller than an anonymous publisher with anonymous employees," the company said.

The shop continued by arguing that the policy also isn't "reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest," and without any standardized criteria for approved booksellers or appeal process, constitutes a permitting scheme and opens the door to potential discrimination.

"In other words, the lack of announced criteria or standards allows for arbitrary and potentially discriminatory or even viewpoint-based application of the Authorized Retailer Policy to restrict the First Amendment right of book sellers to communicate with jail residents," Avid added.

Mayfield did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Avid Bookshop is represented by Clare R. Norins of the University of Georgia School of Law's First Amendment Clinic and Zack Greenamyre of Mitchell Shapiro Greenamyre & Funt LLP.

Counsel information for Taylor and Haynes was not immediately available.

The case is Avid Bookshop LLC v. Taylor et al., case number 1:24-cv-01135, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

--Editing by Patrick Reagan.

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