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Critics assail Baltimore police "gag orders"

Crime & Justiceby Fern Shen12:04 pmSep 16, 20190

ACLU calls Young’s executive order on police misconduct gag orders “a sham”

Order allows Baltimore to continue gag orders, prohibiting only “unreasonable” ones. ACLU calls Young’s “truth-to-power” language in issuing the order “disgusting.”

Above: Mayor Jack Young listens as City Solicitor Andre Davis addresses the media at City Hall last May. (Mark Reutter)

The ACLU of Maryland has denounced today’s executive order from Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young purporting to “bar” the use of gag orders in police misconduct settlements, calling it “a total sham” and “a cynical power grab by City Solicitor Andre M. Davis.”

“The order does absolutely nothing to address the problem of the city solicitor’s continued use of gag orders and exists solely to provide political cover” for Young and Davis, said David Rocah, the ACLU’s legal director.

“All it prohibits are ‘unreasonable constraints’ on the free speech rights on victims of police misconduct,” said Rocah, noting that Baltimore has continued to require these non-disparagement agreements, known as “gag orders,” in police misconduct settlements.

ACLU: “If Davis continues to defend the so-called reasonableness of the so-called modified gag orders we will continue to oppose him.”

Following a defeat in July when the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ACLU’s constitutional challenge on gag orders, Davis has said Baltimore long ago stopped using them and pointed to language he said shows the speech restrictions have been modified.

The ACLU has strenuously disputed that claim and did so again today, calling the city’s contention that it has ended the practice “a lie.”

“We know from emails and other documentation that the city solicitor has continued to use these gag orders in this supposedly modified form – they are still gag orders,” Rocah said. “And we know gag orders even in their most extreme form continued to be used.”

Undercutting City Council Bill?

The order comes on the eve of a public hearing on a City Council bill that would end the use of gag orders to settle claims of police misconduct and discrimination against the city.

The measure also has reporting provisions, including a requirement that the law department publish on its website a regular report on police misconduct or illegal discrimination claims against city agency or officials, official or employee.

Council bill 10-0409, scheduled to come before the Council’s Public Safety Committee tonight at 5 p.m., is sponsored by  Councilwoman Shannon Sneed and has the backing of Council President Brandon Scott, who on Friday announced he is running for mayor.

Young has not said whether he will enter the race, but, as The Brew reported in July, is strongly considering doing so.

Today’s press release from Young’s office said the executive order affirms the incumbent’s belief in “the personal agency of victims.”

“I believe that people who bring a claim forward against the city and receive a settlement should absolutely be able to speak their truth,” Young is quoted saying.

Rocah called this language “disgusting” and “pretty words that are utterly meaningless without action,” urging Young to sign the Sneed/Scott bill.

Misleading Press Release

Other language in the order affirms Davis contention that he has sole authority to impose gag orders and to determine whether they are “reasonable.” The ACLU disputes that reading of charter language.

Media reporting on the executive order this morning – describing the edict as a ban on gag orders – “is not accurate,” Rocah said.

Also inaccurate is the press release from Young’s office saying that the order “applies retroactively to people who’ve settled claims against the city in the past.”

“The order itself says nothing about that,” Rocah said.

The press release also notes that Young’s office promised the executive order at a meeting last month with the ACLU and a prominent supporter of the bill, Tawanda Jones.

“They also promised to show it to us before they issued it and that never happened,” Rocah said. “That’s because I’m sure they knew what our reaction would be.”

Rocah said the ACLU is continuing to move forward in the lawsuit it brought in 2017 challenging gag orders on behalf of Ashley Overbey and this website, Baltimore Brew.

“If Davis continues to defend the so-called reasonableness of the so-called modified gag orders,” he said, “we will continue to oppose him.”

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