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First Amendment lawsuit forces Allegheny County to revise jail policies

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  1. First Amendment
Attorneys from RCFP and Yale's MFIA Clinic helped journalist Brittany Hailer reach a settlement with the county.
Allegheny County Jail
The Allegheny County Jail, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Photo by Jake Dabkowski)

A First Amendment lawsuit brought by journalist Brittany Hailer has forced Allegheny County to revise policies that previously barred its jail employees and contractors from speaking publicly and with members of the news media about matters of public concern without permission, changes that could result in more accountability reporting about the Allegheny County Jail.

In a settlement finalized on Tuesday, Allegheny County agreed to make substantive revisions to several Bureau of Corrections policies, including rules governing employees’ access to the news media and their use of social media, acknowledging “that its employees and contractors have constitutional rights to speak on matters of public concern when acting as private citizens.” 

The agreement comes more than eight months after Hailer filed a federal lawsuit challenging the policies with free legal support from attorneys at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic. The lawsuit argued that the policies violated the First Amendment and effectively silenced jail employees, hampering important investigative reporting about issues at the Allegheny County Jail, which in recent years has been the subject of coverage examining the deaths of men incarcerated at the jail, personnel vacancies and turnover, and allegations of deficient medical care.

“This settlement and the resulting policy changes send a clear message that jail employees and contractors who want to speak publicly or with the press in their capacity as private citizens have a First Amendment right to do so,” said Paula Knudsen Burke, the Pennsylvania Local Legal Initiative attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, who helped litigate the case on Hailer’s behalf. “Meaningful accountability and oversight depend upon the public’s ability to access information about what is happening inside of correctional facilities. We are glad to have reached a resolution with Allegheny County that will help ensure that our client and other journalists can receive information about issues of public concern from those who wish to discuss them.”

After the lawsuit was filed last August, attorneys for Hailer and Allegheny County began negotiations to develop new policies to replace those targeted in the complaint. The two sides eventually reached a settlement agreement that resulted in changes to four separate policies of the Allegheny County Bureau of Corrections, including three that were specifically cited in Hailer’s lawsuit

One of the new rules concerns access to the news media. While the previous rule stated that jail employees and contractors could not speak with members of the press unless granted permission by the warden, the revised rule states that it “does not apply to employees when they speak on matters of public concern as private citizens on their own time” and that the policy “does not restrict any employee from revealing impropriety or wrongdoing by any employee and must not be construed to do so.” Allegheny County added similar language to a separate revised policy governing employees’ use of social media.

As part of the settlement, the county also amended the Bureau of Corrections’ code of ethics/conduct policy, removing language that required jail employees to “hold all jail matters with confidentiality” or risk disciplinary action or even termination.

Allegheny County has agreed to implement the new policies within 30 days and promptly communicate them to all jail personnel. 

Hailer, who reported extensively on problems at the Allegheny County Jail while she was director of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, said she is thankful for the work of her attorneys and emphasized the significance of the settlement for the community.

“Jail workers have been providing information to the media in an effort to make the jail a better place and to shine light on the conditions of confinement, despite the fact that they might lose their job. Now, those same workers can talk to the press with protection, which is a benefit to not just the media, but to readers and concerned citizens in Allegheny County,” said Hailer, who is now a staff writer at The Marshall Project. “Hopefully this helps usher in a new era of transparency for those incarcerated and employed at the Allegheny County Jail.”

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