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City law barring workers from talking to press struck down

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City law barring workers from talking to press struck down 12/16/96 NEW YORK--In late November, a federal District Court judge…

City law barring workers from talking to press struck down

12/16/96

NEW YORK–In late November, a federal District Court judge in Manhattan struck down a city policy barring employees of New York City’s child welfare agencies from talking with the press without prior approval, stating that the policy violated the employees’ First Amendment rights. The city has vowed to appeal the ruling.

The media contacts policy, which covers employees of the Administration for Children’s Services, its predecessor the Child Welfare Administration, and the Human Resources Administration, requires that all press inquiries be referred to the Media Relations Office, and prohibits employees from discussing any agency matter with the press.

Stating that government employees have a First Amendment right to discuss matters of public concern, Judge Denise Cote struck down the policy, finding that it posed “a significant restriction on employee speech and deprive[d] the public of important information.” The court further held that the city failed to show that allowing employees to speak to the press would endanger the efficient operation of the agency.

In November 1995, Rosalie Harman, a child welfare employee for 28 years, appeared on ABC News’s “World News Tonight” in connection with a report about the much-publicized death of a six-year-old girl, Elisa Izquierdo, who allegedly died from physical abuse by her mother. During the broadcast, Harman stated that “the workers who are considered the best workers are the ones who seem to be able to move cases out quickly,” and that “there are lots of fatalities the press doesn’t know anything about.”

Six weeks later, the agency suspended Harman without pay for thirty days, saying that the statements she had made on the news program violated the media contacts policy and state confidentiality laws.

Harman filed a civil rights complaint, arguing that the media contacts policy was an unconstitutional prior restraint of speech in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. In June, 1996, another employee, Diane Lampert Stadler, intervened in Harman’s suit. Stadler was told by an agency ombudsman not to discuss any agency matters with the press. Thereafter, a New York Post reporter sent a letter to the press secretary indicating that she wished to speak with Stadler about child welfare issues, and stating that she would not ask Stadler to violate any confidentiality rules. The request was apparently denied.

In opposing the lawsuit, the city argued that its media contacts policy was necessary to maintain “the effective and efficient operation of the agency,” and that state confidentiality laws required that certain information pertaining to children under the agency’s care not be disclosed to the public.

Cote added that the city policy was overbroad because it required employees to seek prior approval before speaking to reporters about any agency matter. (Harman v. City of New York; Jeremiah Gutman, New York)