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First Amendment challenge to ‘gag’ rules in Allegheny County Jail

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  1. First Amendment
Journalist Brittany Hailer’s lawsuit alleges the policies mean that many problems in the jail go underreported.
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The Allegheny County Jail, in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has adopted policies that bar its employees and contractors from speaking publicly about the jail without the warden’s approval. Problems at the jail — an alarmingly high death rate, frequent personnel turnover and understaffing, and deficient medical care — have garnered attention in recent years.

Brittany Hailer, director and co-founder of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, is one of the local journalists who has been reporting extensively on conditions at the jail. Earlier this month, lawyers at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic sued Allegheny County on Hailer’s behalf, arguing that the “gag” rules prohibiting personnel from speaking out about the goings on at the jail violate the First Amendment.

The gag rules bar those working for the jail from “mak[ing] statements, comments to the news media, or publish[ing] original printed material [without] prior written approval from the Warden.” They also prohibit employees from talking publicly about “policies, facility operations, or the handling of events” at the jail without warden approval. Further, the rules require that all employees “hold all jail matters with confidentiality” and not discuss them with anyone who has not been “expressly authorized.”

As Hailer and Reporters Committee attorneys allege in the lawsuit, the policies mean that many of the problems in the jail go unreported or underreported. Jail employees have expressly told Hailer that they would not speak with her because of the gag rules, making it much harder for her to report on the conditions in the jail, and making it challenging to verify and fact-check the reports she does receive.

This lawsuit is part of a broader effort by Hailer and Reporters Committee attorneys to increase transparency and accountability at the Allegheny County Jail. Hailer sought access to autopsy records from the jail in 2020 as part of her investigative reporting on conditions there, but her request was initially denied. Reporters Committee attorneys began representing Hailer when her request reached the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, which concluded that the county could withhold the autopsy records from the journalist. Last month, however, the full bench of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversed that decision, 6-1, in a resounding victory for transparency and the public’s right to know what’s going on in Pennsylvania jails.

We hope this trend toward transparency continues. We’ll keep you posted.

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The Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press uses integrated advocacy — combining the law, policy analysis, and public education — to defend and promote press rights on issues at the intersection of technology and press freedom, such as reporter-source confidentiality protections, electronic surveillance law and policy, and content regulation online and in other media. TPFP is directed by Reporters Committee attorney Gabe Rottman. He works with RCFP Staff Attorney Grayson Clary and Technology and Press Freedom Project Fellow Emily Hockett.

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