Judge Tosses Out ACLU’s Lawsuit Against Baltimore Police Over Gag Orders in Brutality Cases

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A judge today tersely dismissed a First Amendment case brought against the City of Baltimore by the ACLU of Maryland over gag orders for police brutality accusers.

In his one-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Frederick Motz wrote simply, “This disparagement clause did not violate the First Amendment,” followed by, “The non-disparagement clause is valid.”

The ACLU had filed its lawsuit on behalf of Ashley Overbey, a Baltimore woman who settled a dispute with the city for $63,000 after she sued the police department for false arrest and physical abuse in 2012. Overbey, then 25, alleged she was beaten, choked and tased by three officers – enough to land her in the hospital – after she initially called the police to report a burglary. Police at first charged her with six counts of assault and one count of resisting arrest, but later dropped the charges. She then took them to court.

Two years later, Overbey settled with the city’s lawyers, agreeing not to remark publicly on the case. If she complied, she would receive her promised $63,000; if she violated that piece of the agreement, she would get $31,500, or half of the full sum.

She didn’t comply. She responded defensively to critical online comments on a 2014 Baltimore Sun article – “I am the woman who this article is talking about AND THE POLICE WERE WRONG!!” She got the lower amount of money.

This past June, the ACLU filed a free speech lawsuit on her behalf, arguing such gag orders violate the accuser’s First Amendment rights, even if she agreed not to speak out after settling. Lawyers were seeking to make the City of Baltimore pay out the other half of Overbey’s settlement, and asked the court to rule such gag orders unconstitutional.

Fellow local news blog The Baltimore Brew also joined as a party to the suit, arguing the gag order prevented staffers from being able to speak to Overbey, which they said hurt their ability to adequately report on both sides of the story.

In July, the city moved to dismiss the lawsuit, federal court records show. Today, Judge Motz sided with the city, citing two prior cases from Pennsylvania in 1988 and North Carolina in 1998 as precedent.

ACLU of Maryland legal director Deborah Jeon said in a statement today that her organization plans to appeal the decision.

“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, which is used to silence 95 percent of victims in agreements to settle civil rights cases involving alleged police abuse,” Jeon said.

She added that the city has a “larger historical pattern and practice” of using gag orders to “stifle public awareness and discussion of police brutality,” particularly in black communities.

“We will fight for the rights of Ashley Overbey and for this groundbreaking case at the intersection of free speech and civil rights.”

The case against the city was actually one of two taken up by the ACLU over gag orders in police brutality case settlements. The other concerns the Salisbury Police Department. The organization is representing the Real News Network, which has argued its reporters were blocked by Salisbury officials from being able to report on a settlement between the department and four Salisbury University students in a 2014 case.

The students had accused Salisbury police officers of brutality, excessive force, illegal seizure, detention and false arrest during an incident. They wound up settling out of court as well. The terms were kept confidential, though not sealed, according to the ACLU’s filing.

When Real News and the ACLU tried to follow up on the details of the settlement via 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 ACLU’s pending lawsuit alleges the city violated the state public information act and asks for the release of settlement documents, in addition to paid legal fees.

Judicial records show the City of Salisbury moved to dismiss the case in September. A judge hasn’t responded to that request.

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