Maryland’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Baltimore and Salisbury police departments over so-called gag orders that bar police brutality accusers from commenting publicly on their cases after settling out of court.
Both filings call for charges against each department for violating First Amendment freedoms and state disclosure laws for public records. The first suit against Baltimore police also accuses the department of unlawfully withholding money from the accuser, Ashley Overbey, and breaching a contract from their settlement.
In the BPD case, lawyers are suing on behalf of Overbey, who reached a $63,000 settlement with the department in August 2014, as well as The Baltimore Brew, which has argued a gag order placed on Overbey is unconstitutional under the First Amendement.
Overbey, then 25, had sued the department for wrongful arrest and physical abuse in 2012 after she called police to report a burglary. She alleged she was beaten, choked and tased by three officers at her apartment. She was hospitalized, after which police arrested her on six counts of assault and one count of resisting arrest. Authorities later dropped the charges, and Overbey sued shortly thereafter.
Two years later, when she and the city had finally settled out of court, Overbey signed a gag order promising not to comment on the case. However, after she responded defensively to critical comments on a 2014 Baltimore Sun article – “I am the woman who this article is talking about AND THE POLICE WERE WRONG!!,” she wrote — the city informed her it would pay out only $31,500 of the sum it owed her.
The Baltimore Brew, a party to the suit, is arguing it was stonewalled by the gag order. According to the complaint, the outlet was “forced to rely on the City’s one-sided memorandum and subjective statements” from the city solicitor — the City of Baltimore’s top representing attorney — “without getting a firsthand account from interviews with the victim” since she was not allowed to comment.
“The city’s lack of transparency has prevented us from doing our job – it has been very frustrating,” said Fern Shen, editor and publisher of The Brew, in a statement.
In the case against Salisbury police, the ACLU is representing the Real News Network, which also says government officials have blocked it from being able to report on a settlement reached between the department and four Salisbury University students in a 2014 case. Two years after the quartet of Eastern Shore students accused officers of police brutality, excessive force, illegal seizure, detention and arrest during an incident, the parties settled out of court.
However, when the outlet and the ACLU repeatedly tried to follow up on details about the settlement through Maryland Public Information Act requests, the City of Salisbury told them that it and the police department had no documentation about the deal to share.
The suit calls for a restraining order that would force the city to release information about the settlement, and for the city pay both parties statutory damages and cover their legal fees.
“It is clear that the people in communities like Salisbury and Pocomoke both want and need to know what their police officers are doing and that includes critical information unreasonably withheld in these lawsuits,” said Real News Network investigative reporter Stephen Janis in a statement.
In the Baltimore case, the ACLU’s lawsuit argues the gag order violated Overbey’s right to free speech, and asks the city to pay out the remainder of the settlement. It also says such orders should be considered unconstitutional, arguing they impinge on the freedom of the press.
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