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Baltimore City Council bans ‘gag orders’ in police settlements

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  1. Policy
RCFP previously testified that ‘gag orders’ prevent the press from fairly and accurately reporting on police misconduct.
This is an image of Baltimore City Hall
Baltimore City Hall

Baltimore City Council unanimously passed a bill on Oct. 28 banning the use of “gag orders” in city settlements for police brutality and discrimination cases.

The bill, “Transparency and Oversight in Claims and Litigation,” specifically prohibits the city’s Law Department from approving certain settlement agreements that require people making claims to waive their rights to speak about their cases. It also requires the city to publicly post semi-annual reports about civil claims involving police-misconduct allegations.

In September, the Reporters Committee testified before the Public Safety Committee in support of the legislation. The testimony stressed the need for transparency in police settlements and noted the impact gag orders have on the ability of the press to fairly and accurately report on allegations of police misconduct. The Reporters Committee argued that police-misconduct claims, as well as the circumstances in which the city litigates and settles them, are exceptionally newsworthy “public issues” that should be freely discussed.

Days before the committee hearing, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young issued an executive order that banned “unreasonable” gag orders in police-involved settlements. But civil liberties and police reform advocates argued that the executive order did not go far enough, insisting that a bill was still needed to truly protect victims of police misconduct. Those concerns were voiced by some community members who testified during the September hearing.

This was not the first time that the Reporters Committee has participated in a case involving gag orders. In May 2018, RCFP and a media coalition filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit supporting The Baltimore Brew, an online media outlet. The brief argued that the news organization, under longstanding constitutional principles, has standing to challenge the city’s practice of imposing gag orders on victims of police misconduct who would otherwise publicly share their stories. It also highlighted the strong public policy interest in favor of public access to settlement agreements.

In July 2019, the Fourth Circuit ruled that Baltimore’s gag orders in police misconduct cases were unconstitutional and unenforceable. The city has said it will not appeal the decision, which helped lead to the bill introduced by Baltimore City Council.

The council’s unanimous vote means the bill has enough support to override a mayoral veto. The bill now heads to Young’s desk for his signature.

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

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