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Accountabilityby Fern Shen7:58 pmOct 13, 20170

Judge reopens Baltimore Brew’s case challenging city’s use of “gag orders”

Complaint alleges non-disclosure clauses in police settlements violate the First Amendment

Above: Brew reporter Mark Reutter describes the history of police brutality settlements at an ACLU press conference last June. (Fox 45 News)

A federal judge ordered the Baltimore Brew’s case against the city reopened, the latest twist in the First Amendment challenge lodged in June by this news website and co-plaintiff Ashley Overbey.

In a brief order issued today, James K. Bredar, Chief U.S. District Judge for Maryland, said that when a fellow judge dismissed the parties’ complaint challenging the use of non-disparagement clauses in police settlements, the judgment was only entered against Overbey.

He was referring to an October 4 ruling by U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz granting a motion for dismissal by the defendants, the Baltimore Police Department and Mayor and City Council.

Bredar said today that Motz granted the city’s motions to dismiss the Overbey case, but Motz did not enter a judgment on the claims “brought by the remaining plaintiff, Baltimore Brew.

The city’s motions to dismiss The Brew’s claims “remain pending and are ripe for disposition. Accordingly, it is hereby ordered that the Clerk’s Office reopen the case to permit adjudication of those motions in due course,” Bredar wrote.

Deborah A. Jeon, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which represent Overbey and The Brew in the case, said Bedar’s ruling was s surprise.

“It is an unusual ruling, but a positive development that permits us to move forward in our efforts to address the important First Amendment issues at stake,” Jeon said

First Amendment Claims

The lawsuit argued that the city’s practice of requiring silence from alleged victims of police abuse in exchange for cash settlements violates the First Amendment.

In dismissing the case last week, Motz had addressed the portion of the litigation pertaining to Overbey.

In a 2012 encounter with Baltimore police when she was 25 years old, Overbey said that she was beaten, kicked, punched, tased and locked up along with her mother.

The city subsequently withheld half of Overbey’s $63,000 settlement because she had written comments on Baltimore Sun website defending herself from those who made disparaging remarks about her claims.

In his dismissal of the case, Motz wrote that Overbey was “represented by counsel in negotiating her settlement agreement” and that she signed a “valid” non-disparagement clause.

But he did not address The Brew’s claims in the complaint.

The website asserted that the city’s policy prevents the media from reporting on the details of police brutality cases by severely penalizing plaintiffs who speak to the press.

The Brew seeks no monetary damages, but wants free access to plaintiffs after a case is settled.

Bredar Oversees Consent Decree

In a recent op-ed, David A. Plymyer, a former Anne Arundel County prosecutor, said the imposition of a “gag order” serves no public good.

“The non-disparagement clauses are all about sparing the city and its police officers from public embarrassment,” he wrote.

“There is something particularly galling about the city trying to suppress unflattering information when the city and state are on track to spend tens of millions of dollars on a consent decree that was necessary because of a pattern of misconduct by officers that should have been brought to light and fixed many years ago,” Plymyer wrote.

Bredar, who took over as chief judge of the Maryland District earlier this month, has been assigned to oversee and enforce the consent decree struck between the U.S. Justice Department and the City of Baltimore.

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PREVIOUS BREW COVERAGE

Baltimore’s “gag orders” in police settlements challenged in court (6/29/17)

Judge rejects suit challenging “gag order” in Baltimore police violence cases (10/5/17)

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