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Federal judge dismisses lawsuit over Baltimore police settlement ‘gag order’ clauses

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit alleging Baltimore city’s practice of including non-disparagement clauses in police misconduct settlement agreements is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz issued a one-page opinion Tuesday finding as valid the clause which the ACLU of Maryland characterized as a “gag order” in its complaint.

The lawsuit was filed by Ashley Overbey and the Baltimore Brew in June and alleged city’s pattern of including the clauses in settlement agreements “muzzles victims of police brutality.”

Overbey lost half of her settlement with police after she defended herself in comments on a blog post discussing the settlement; the Baltimore Brew alleges reporters cannot present a full and accurate picture of police encounters without being able to speak to victims.

The city and police department filed motions to dismiss in July, arguing the plaintiffs’ claims “have no basis in law or public policy.”

In his opinion, Motz said “Overbey was represented by counsel in negotiating her settlement agreement” that included the clause, which does not violate the First Amendment.

Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU, said her clients were disappointed by the court’s decision and plan to appeal.

“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 in a statement.

Motz also failed to consider the non-disparagement clauses as part of Baltimore’s “historical pattern and practice of trying to stifle public awareness and discussion of police brutality,” Jeon added, and she hopes the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will be “more receptive.”

Still pending

A second lawsuit against Salisbury and its police department, announced at the same time as Overbey’s, is still pending in Baltimore City Circuit Court. The case was filed on behalf of the Real News Network, which filed a Maryland Public Information Act request seeking documents about a settlement the Eastern Shore city reached with four Salisbury University students who filed an excessive force lawsuit.

The city claimed neither it nor the Salisbury Police Department had any documentation about the settlement. The plaintiffs in the case cannot speak due to a confidentiality clause.

The defendants have filed a motion to change the venue of the case as well as a motion to dismiss. A motions hearing is scheduled for Oct. 13.

The cases are Ashley Amaris Overbey et al. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore et al., 1:17-cv-01793-JFM, and American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Maryland et al. v. City of Salisbury et al., 24C17003485.

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