The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland says police department legal settlements requiring confidentiality are unconstitutional.
The ACLU has announced two lawsuits against police departments—one in Baltimore City, the other in Salisbury, on the Eastern Shore—seeking to ban these “gag orders,” one of which cost a Baltimore woman half of a legal settlement last year. The Baltimore Brew website and The Real News Network are also plaintiffs.
“I am not the first nor will I be the last to be mistreated by police and silenced by my city, but my hope is that through my story and fight, no one else will have to endure what so many of us already have,” said Ashley Overbey, a plaintiff in the Baltimore suit, according to the press release.
A copy of both complaints is available on the ACLU's website.
Overbey sued police after they entered her home, beat and arrested her in 2012. She had called them to report a burglary, according to the suit, and the city eventually settled with her for $63,000.
But as a condition of settling the case, the city required Overbey to agree not speak publicly about her experience. Later, she defended herself on the Sun’s comments page after people started accusing her of orchestrating the police attack on her. So the city withheld half the settlement.
“Free speech and police accountability to the communities they serve are both under attack when police departments block transparency and gag orders are used to silence victims of misconduct as a condition of settlement,” said Deborah A. Jeon, Legal Director of the ACLU, who is one of the lawyers representing Overbey in the suit.
The city’s Law Department did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment.
Confidentiality agreements are a very common part of lawsuit settlements. Some lawyers have long criticized the practice, and a federal court in Maryland held two years ago that a confidentiality clause in a settlement violated the First Amendment. That decision was vacated on appeal in December, but on different grounds. So it appears that the question is very much alive in the judiciary.