Cook County Jail election guide rejection harms voters and the free press

Mistakes happen. But not every mistake violates the First Amendment rights of both a journalism organization and the electorate.

This year, Injustice Watch undertook a major effort to print and mail 1,000 copies of our judicial election guide to Cook County voters who are directly impacted by the decisions of elected judges—detainees in the Cook County Jail.

We carefully followed the instructions of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to mail all 1,000 guides to the jail by Saturday, Oct. 10, believing that voters would receive them in advance of early voting on the weekends of Oct. 17 and Oct. 24.

But on the morning of Oct. 26, one of Sheriff Tom Dart’s senior staff members called me to say that the mailroom at the jail had mistakenly rejected all 1,000 envelopes. Later that day, I received a letter of apology from Dart Chief of Staff Brad Curry, acknowledging that “there is no excuse for their being rejected and returned undeliverable.”

Envelope with "RTS No Newspaper" scrawled on it

Juliet Sorensen

The Cook County Jail rejected 1,000 copies of Injustice Watch’s judicial election guide that had been sent to eligible voters incarcerated there.

In a statement, Cook County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Matthew Walberg said jail staff rejected the guides “because the mailroom erroneously believed there was a ban on distribution of newspaper.” And indeed, “RTS – No Newspaper” was scrawled in permanent marker across every single envelope.

In 2015, a federal court found the Cook County Jail’s blanket ban on newspapers to be unconstitutional, pointing to well-established law that “’[f]reedom of speech is not merely freedom to speak; it is also freedom to read.” The flip side of the freedom to receive information is the fundamental right of a free press, expressly recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, to publish truthful information about matters of public significance—precisely the purpose of the Injustice Watch judicial election guide.

Sheriff Dart does not dispute these basic constitutional protections. His spokesperson stated on Monday that the Jail’s rejection of the guides “absolutely should not have occurred as our policy specifically allows for mail printed on newsprint to be disseminated to detainees.” But violating inalienable rights by accident raises as many questions as if he had violated them deliberately.

Has the mailroom staff undergone any training since the 2015 court order? Back in September, two separate email communications and a phone call to me from the Sheriff’s office indicated that the mailroom had been notified the guides were arriving. Was the mailroom, in fact, notified? If so, when and by whom? If our guides were wrongly rejected as contraband, what else has been improperly withheld from detainees at the jail?

I believe and appreciate that Curry apologized for the mistake in good faith. But if the sheriff had cared about the guides reaching voters in the jail, that mistake would not have occurred in the first place.

Injustice Watch spent thousands of dollars and countless hours on a public service journalism initiative that has now been rendered largely moot due to an error. The Jail’s error robbed the supporters who donated to help get the guide in the jail of their donation’s intended purpose. While the sheriff has offered to reimburse us for the costs associated with mailing the guides, he cannot undo the harm of preventing our guide from reaching 1,000 voters inside the jail.

But our commitment to the communities we serve is redoubled.

We will continue to tell stories of people impacted by the justice system. We will continue to report on public officials, including the judiciary.  We will push to make our work accessible and available to all, including those inside the Cook County Jail. And we’ll do everything in our power to make sure that this doesn’t happen again, whether to Injustice Watch or any other organization engaged in voter education.

Because a free press and an informed society are priceless.

Juliet Sorensen is the executive director of Injustice Watch.