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Gag orders shield police from accountability for violence against Baltimore residents, brief asserts

May 31, 2018

This week, the Public Justice Center and allies filed an amicus brief challenging Baltimore City’s use of gag orders to silence survivors of police abuse. The brief supports the case of Ashley Overbey, who was beaten by Baltimore City police officers after calling them for assistance when her home was burglarized. She filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department and the city, which concluded with a settlement agreement. One term of the agreement prohibited Ms. Overbey from ever speaking about the incident (essentially a gag order), and if she violated the term, half of the settlement amount would be withheld. But the then City Solicitor issued a statement about the case in the Baltimore Sun disparaging Ms. Overbey. She defended herself in the comments section of the Sun article, and the city withheld half of her settlement.

Represented by the ACLU of Maryland and Crowell & Moring, Ms. Overbey sued the city over its gag order policy, arguing that it violates her First Amendment rights. The Baltimore Brew joined the suit, arguing that the policy also violates its First Amendment rights because the policy prohibits it from investigating incidents of police violence in the city. The district court dismissed the action, and Ms. Overbey and the Baltimore Brew appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

Together with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, National Women’s Law Center, and Baltimore City civil rights advocate Tawanda Jones, the Public Justice Center filed a brief in Overbey v. Mayor & City Council of Balt. arguing that the city’s gag order policy inhibits police accountability and allows for the continuation of police violence against Black residents, particularly Black women, in Baltimore. The brief makes clear that these gag orders are used to conceal from the public the BPD’s frequent unwarranted violence against civilians.

“Baltimore City’s use of gag orders serves only to protect police officers from being held accountable for brutalizing city residents,” said K’Shaani Smith, PJC attorney and author of the brief. “By erasing the experiences of the many Black men, women, and children who have been harmed by BPD, the city’s policy has undoubtedly contributed to the culture of police violence in Baltimore.”

The brief is one of three amicus briefs filed in the case. Twenty media organizations filed a brief arguing that the city’s policy restricts journalists’ ability to gather news from individuals settling such cases and thus prevents members of the news media from accurately reporting issues of significant public interest and importance. Another amicus brief, filed by the Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic and Public Justice (a different organization from the Public Justice Center), addresses access to justice issues, detailing how Baltimore City’s confidentiality clause violates Maryland’s ethical rules for attorneys. The brief argues that the clause is so broadly worded that it prohibits attorneys from discussing their clients’ allegations—including publicly available facts—which unlawfully limits an attorney’s ability to practice.

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