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Hailer v. Allegheny County

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  1. First Amendment

Case Number: 2:23-cv-01480-PLD

Court: U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania

Client: Brittany Hailer

Complaint Filed: Aug. 17, 2023

Background: Brittany Hailer, the director and co-founder of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, has reported extensively on problems at the Allegheny County Jail. Since April 2020, 20 men have died after entering the jail. Among other issues, the jail has a shortage of staff and medical personnel qualified to provide incarcerated people with proper care, subjecting them to health risks.

But understanding the full extent of the jail’s problems is hampered by policies that prevent employees from speaking with members of the press unless granted permission by the warden. By effectively silencing jail employees, these “gag” rules delay Hailer’s reporting by weeks or months and, in some cases, prevent her from writing important public-interest stories altogether.

On Hailer’s behalf, attorneys from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic sued Allegheny County, alleging that the jail’s overly broad restrictions on employee interactions with members of the news media violate the First Amendment rights of the public and press, as well as the jail’s staff and contractors.

Quotes: “The Allegheny County Jail’s overly broad and unnecessarily restrictive ‘gag’ rules are a clear violation of the First Amendment. When the government prevents employees from speaking truthfully about matters of public concern, it restricts the flow of information to communities and can lead to issues going unreported or underreported,” said Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney for Pennsylvania. “The public’s ability to access information about jail conditions is essential to oversight and accountability, and if jail employees and contractors want to speak publicly or with the press about health, safety, or other important issues, they shouldn’t be prevented from doing so.”

“This case presents an important issue for reporters at a time when agencies at every level of government are barring their employees from talking with the press,” said David Schulz, director of the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic representing Hailer. “The issue at the heart of this case goes directly to the ability of the press to ferret out the news the public needs for democracy to function.”

Related: Burke represents Hailer in a separate lawsuit against Allegheny County for withholding the autopsy records of a man who died in custody in 2020. In July 2023, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ordered the county to disclose the records.

Co-counsel: Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic

Filings:

2023-08-17: Complaint

2023-10-23: Stipulation for extension of time

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