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John Thomas Entler, a prisoner at Washington State Penitentiary, was in no position to complain.
But he did, telling prison officials they wrongly charged his prison account $200. He also complained about being forced to do certain work.
That got him 10 days of cell confinement and 15 days lost time in the yard and gym. After a failed complaint in federal court, an appeals court finally gave him a break in Entler v. Gregoire.
Right to Complain
The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said Entler's grievances were protected by the First Amendment. The appeals panel said that included a right to threaten civil and criminal actions for retaliation.
"We hold, as a matter of first impression in our circuit, that both the filing of a criminal complaint by a prisoner, as well as the threat to do so, are protected by the First Amendment, provided they are not baseless," the judges said.
Entler had threatened criminal action against a prison official after his account was charged and his request for legal documents was ignored. He demanded that Lynn Clark fire the clerk who ignored his request.
"If you do not fire her for refusing to provide me legal copies, which she has done again, I'll file criminal charges with the Sheriff's office and have you arrested," he wrote through the prison's grievance program.
Entler also complained that he had been forced to work contrary to his religious beliefs, and threatened to sue if officials did not relent.
"You will be the one I sue for violation of my Religious Civil Rights," he said. "You will answer to God for your persecution of me."
After he was disciplined, Entler sued. The Ninth Circuit said he had a case, but that the trial judge should decide whether the officials were entitled to immunity on the criminal issue.
However, the appeals court said, the officials had no immunity for retaliating against Entler for his threats to file a civil action. The judges said that issue was settled more than 20 years ago.