A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit objecting to Baltimore’s policy of prohibiting persons who receive cash settlements in police brutality cases from talking about them publicly or to the media.
Filed on behalf of police violence victim Ashley Overbey and this website, Baltimore Brew, the suit argues that city officials illegally withheld half of Overbey’s $63,000 settlement because she described her case on a newspaper’s online talk forum.
The policy violates First Amendment guarantees of free speech and a free press by silencing victims and preventing the press from reporting on interactions with the police, the suit argues, naming the Baltimore Police Department and the Mayor and City Council.
In a one-page decision filed yesterday, U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz said that Overbey was “represented by counsel in negotiating her settlement agreement” and that she signed a “valid” non-disparagement clause.
“This provision did not violate the First Amendment,” Motz wrote, granting the motion by lawyers for the BPD and the city to dismiss the case.
Saying they were “very disappointed” by the ruling, attorneys representing Overbey and The Brew said they will appeal it.
“It is apparent from the one-page decision that the court gave insufficient consideration to the important First Amendment principles implicated by Baltimore City’s gag order, ” said Deborah Jeon, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
She noted that the gag orders are used “to silence 95 percent of victims in agreements to settle civil rights cases involving alleged police abuse.”
Overbey’s settlement stemmed from a 2012 encounter with police who responded to her call that her house had been burglarized.
“Instead of them helping me, they brutalized me. They beat me up. There were three male officers who beat, punched, kicked and attacked me as if I were a male or a threat. I was tased. I was subsequently charged with six criminal charges and locked up for 24 hours, alongside my mother,” Overbey said at a news conference in June when the suit was filed.
The charges against her were later dropped, and the city responded to her lawsuit charging assault, battery, false arrest and false imprisonment by agreeing to a settlement that included the confidentiality agreement.
The city subsequently withheld half of Overbey’s $63,000 settlement because she had written comments at the end of a Baltimore Sun story defending herself from commenters who had made disparaging remarks and said she sued the police department just to make money.
Baltimore Brew joined the lawsuit and asserted that the city’s policy prevents it from reporting on the details of police brutality cases by severely penalizing plaintiffs who speak to the press.
“Not Like the Private Sector”
In its motion for dismissal, the city attacked what it called the suit’s “novel constitutional argument that private parties cannot accept Non-Disparagement clauses offered by government entities.”
The argument is “unsupported by legal precedent and contrary to logic, common sense and sound policy,” the city’s Law Department wrote.
Jeon today said the gag order must be viewed as part of “the city’s larger historical pattern and practice of trying to stifle public awareness and discussion of police brutality, especially in the city’s black communities.”
She cited the “rampant civil rights violations” described in last year’s Department of Justice report and the subsequent Consent Decree calling for the reform of police practices.
“In today’s decision, the court ignored that important backdrop, seemingly agreeing with the city that it, no different than any private-sector party, has the right to demand silence as the price of settlement,” Jeon said.
“But government is not like the private sector – the work of the government, national and local alike, is the work of and for the people, and the First Amendment prohibits the government from stifling or, as in the case of Ms. Overbey, penalizing, peaceful speech critical of the government.”