MARYLAND - The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland says that in an effort to take on "gag orders" that quiet police abuse victims to to resolve their cases, the ACLU filed two lawsuits on Thursday that they say challenges the practice as an unconstitutional violation of free speech and illegal under Maryland's transparency law.
The cases were brought on behalf of a woman who was reportedly improperly denied half of her settlement award after responding to comments online about her alleged experience of being brutalized by Baltimore Police.
The lawsuit also comes from the Baltimore Brew and the Real News Network, two news organizations reportedly denied their first amendment and statutory rights to get newsworthy public information from victims of police abuses.
Ashley Overbey, the ACLU client in the Baltimore lawsuit says, "If your voice held no power, they would not try to silence you. Use your power. Speak up! 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."
Deborah A. Leon, the legal director of the ACLU says, "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. "
In 2012, Overbey who was 25 at the time, allegedly called Baltimore Police for help, reporting a burglary at her apartment, Three sets of police officers reportedly responded to the apartment at various times. The crime lab unit reportedly radioed for police officers to come back and one of them allegedly pushed their way in and began searching her apartment without asking Overbey,
When Overbey asked him to explain, the officer allegedly became violent and aggressive. Another officer came soon after and together they allegedly beat, tackled, choked, tased and handcuffed Overbey, who says that she was transported to the hospital, then jailed for 24 hours, and charged with six counts of assault and one count of resisting arrest.
Officials say that all charges against Overbey were dropped and she successfully sued Baltimore Police for wrongful arrest and unwarranted physical abuse. But as a condition of settling the case, the city and police department reportedly made Overbey agree to a gag order that prevented her from talking publicly about her experience.
Overbey was allegedly victimized again by police misconduct when half of her settlement was reportedly taken away because she defended herself in comments on a blog where members of the public disrespected her personal character by suing the police and accepting a settlement, without understanding the level of excessive and illegal force allegedly used by the police.
Baltimore Police reportedly punished Overbey by withholding half of her settlement amount for exercising her right to free speech.
ACLU client Fern Shen, editor and publisher of the Baltimore Brew, said, "The city's lack of transparency has prevented us from doing our job - it has been very frustrating. We and other reporters can't present a full and accurate picture of these police encounters if they are masked by bland, superficial summaries or worse, distorted by the fact that Baltimore City officials are permitted to comment but the citizen victims are penalized for doing so."
The second lawsuit allegedly stems from a 2014 incident where four Salisbury University students sued the city of Salisbury and one Salisbury Police officer alleging police brutality, excessive force, illegal seizure, detention and arrest.
The lawsuit also alleged that S.P.D personnel took surveillance footage and creative fictional narratives to cover up what happened. Two years ago, the court reportedly said that the plaintiffs proved illegal patterns and practices by Salisbury Police to let the case move forward.
Last year, the case was settled, but details of the settlement, including the amount of the award, were reportedly withheld from the press and public. When the ACLU of Maryland and the Real News Network reportedly filed a Maryland Public Information Act request seeking documents about the settlement, the City allegedly rebuffed the request, claiming that neither it nor Salisbury Police had any documentation regarding the settlement.
The alleged lack of transparency has caused at least one of the student plaintiffs to ask if Salisbury Police was holding its officers responsible for their actions, though he is reportedly silenced by the gag order that governs the settlement and allegedly risks losing his award if he speaks out.
ACLU client Stephen Hanis, investigative journalist of the Real News Network, says, "Covering policing on the Eastern Shore for The Real News has revealed there are significant problems with police transparency. It is clear that the people in communities like Salisbury and Pocomoke both want and need to know what their police officers are doing and that includes critical information unreasonably withheld in these lawsuits."
Ashley Overbey and the Baltimore Brew are being represented by Daniel Wolff, Benjamin Wastler, Nkechi Kanu, and Tyler O'Connor of Crowell & Moring LLP, as well as ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon and Legal & Public Policy Counsel Nick Steiner.
The Real News Network is represented by Paul Kalish, Charles Austin, and Sara Helmers of Crowell & Moring LLP, as well as ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon and Legal & Public Policy Counsel Nick Steiner.
Salisbury Mayor Jake Day responded to the lawsuit. He says, "We have been expecting this for some time - since even before I was Mayor. This is a frivolous lawsuit that calls into question Maryland state law. It is an old claim from a 2013/2014 case. We are in complete agreement with the principles of transparency espoused by the ACLU, but their claim is misguided. The taxpayers of Salisbury can rest assured that we will defend them against the costs of this and any frivolous lawsuit."
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