BALTIMORE (CN) — An online Baltimore news outlet sued the city and its police department Thursday, challenging a gag order policy by which people who speak of their settlements with police risk losing their settlement money — though the city is allowed to speak freely.
The Baltimore Brew, an independent daily news site, claims it has been injured by the policy, as does the lead plaintiff, Ashley Overbey, a 30-year-old mother of three.
They say in the federal complaint that the gag order stops victims of police brutality from speaking to news outlets, and news media from reporting the news, including conflicts between Baltimore police and residents.
They also object that the city is not subject to the gag order, which allows it to comment and produce a “distorted version of the facts.”
“The City of Baltimore's pattern and practice of coercing silence from alleged victims of police brutality or penalizing them if they choose not to remain silent offends basic principles of free speech as protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the public policy of the State of Maryland,” the complaint states.
The gag order forces news outlets such as the Baltimore Brew to rely on “one-sided memorandum and subjective statements” about police brutality from city officials, so scared are victims of losing their settlement money, according to the complaint.
“On several occasions, Baltimore Brew attempted to contact plaintiffs directly to obtain more details about the lawsuit,” the complaint states. “Despite promises of confidentiality and anonymity, plaintiffs rarely agreed to comment on the incident or settlement because of the gag order and the severe penalty that accompanied a breach of the gag order's restriction.”
Overbey, as a resident of the Cedonia neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore, called police after her apartment was robbed in 2012. “The first officer who arrived on the scene remarked that Ms. Overbey should be accustomed to burglary, given the location of her residence,” according to the complaint. The Cedonia neighborhood is 88.5 percent nonwhite, according to a Maryland statistical atlas.
After a crime lab unit entered, a third responder, Officer Fred Hannah entered her apartment. When Overbey asked why he had come, she says, “Officer Hannah became aggressive and violent. Without any provocation by her, he grabbed Ms. Overbey by her hair, twisted her arm behind her back, and violently slapped and punched her. He then, without cause or justification, shouted at Ms. Overbey, telling her that she was under arrest. When Ms. Overbey asked why she was being arrested, Officer Hannah yelled, ‘[b]ecause you talk too much, bitch,’ or words to that effect.
“Officer Martin Richardson arrived shortly after the assault and began violently and maliciously beating Ms. Overbey with clenched fists, causing Ms. Overbey further bodily injury, including a black eye so severe that it persisted for a month and a half.”
When Overbey’s mother asked the officers to stop beating her daughter, they arrested the mother and dragged her outside, calling her a “stupid bitch,” while Tasering her daughter twice, according to the complaint.
The city agreed to pay $63,000 to settle Overbey’s lawsuit against the police department, the city and the officers. Under the settlement, Overbey agreed to “limit [her] public comments regarding the litigation and the occurrence to the fact that a satisfactory settlement occurred involving the parties,” according to the agreement, which is reproduced in the complaint.
The Baltimore Sun caught wind of the settlement and published an article about it, using Overbey’s mug shot from the arrest. The comments section of the online article was filled with allegations that Overbey lied about the assault, spurring Overbey to defend herself in the online forum by laying out the facts of the case, according to the complaint.
Less than a month later, the city sent Overbey’s attorney a $31,500 check, along with a letter saying it would not pay the second half of the settlement because of her comments online.
The Baltimore Brew says the policy violates the First Amendment rights of the people who settle their misconduct complaints and the news media.
The complaint cites a litany of abuses by Baltimore police, which came under national scrutiny after the death of Freddie Gray and the ensuing riots in 2015.
The Baltimore Police Department entered into a consent decree with the federal government in January after the Department of Justice found it had engaged in “a pattern and practice of conduct that violates the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution as well as federal anti-discrimination laws.”
Baltimore has paid more than $33 million in settlements and judgments to people who accused the police of brutality or misconduct since 2009, including $6.4 million to Gray’s family, according to the complaint.
Overbey and the Baltimore Brew seek a declaration that the confidentiality agreements are illegal and an order forcing the city to pay Overbey the second half of her settlement.
Their attorney Daniel Wolff, with Crowell & Moring, said that the litigation, and another lawsuit against the Salisbury Police Department in Baltimore City Circuit Court, are “fighting for greater transparency in the police departments of Baltimore and Salisbury, Maryland on matters related to serious allegations of police brutality.”
Wolff continued, in a statement: “The gag order policies of the Baltimore and Salisbury police departments that are the subject of these lawsuits frustrate the ability of the media to report on, and the ability of the public to learn about, incidences of police brutality. These policies stifle the free speech of the victims of brutality by punishing them for speaking out, among other things. In this manner, the gag order policies violate free-speech protections and public policy.”
Deborah Jeon with the ACLU of Maryland, in Baltimore, is co-counsel with Wolff, of Washington, D.C.
The Baltimore Police Department said it does not comment on pending litigation.
The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
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