The Fourth Circuit Court has ruled 2-1 that settlement money cannot silence victims of police brutality in Baltimore, the Courthouse News Service reports.
The case began in 2012 when Baltimore resident Ashley Overbey accused three officers of beating her during a confrontation after she reported a burglary in her home. Overbey sued and ended up settling for $63,000. However, the settlement included a gag order which had a non-disparagement clause.
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When the Baltimore Sun featured Overbey in a 2014 story about the city’s police brutality settlement cases, other publications outlined her story. Anonymous readers took to the comment sections of these articles to troll and make racist comments toward Overbey. She responded, defending herself. As a result, the city withheld half of her settlement money for violating the agreement’s non-disparagement clause.
Commenters accused Overbey of initiating the violence to score a settlement, and she replied, recounting the facts of the case. One of the officers accused Overbey of pushing him after engaging in a verbal confrontation, but Overbey accused the officer of aggressively barging into her apartment without announcing himself, pulling her hair and hitting her. Another officer joined and a third tased her. Overbey was charged with assault and resisting arrest but the city later dropped the charges.
The court took back $31,500 in response to Overbey engaging in the comments of these articles. She sued for the $31,500 and was dismissed. The Fourth Circuit reversed the decision on July 11. The two judges who agreed to reverse the earlier decision claimed the settlement’s gag order violated the First Amendment.
“We hold that the non-disparagement clause in Overbey’s settlement agreement amounts to a waiver of her First Amendment rights and that strong public interests rooted in the First Amendment make it unenforceable and void,” U.S. Circuit Judge Henry Floyd and Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote. Judge Marvin Quattlebaum dissented.
The city argued Overbey was exercising her First Amendment rights by agreeing to refrain from speech in exchange for money. However, the majority ruled that the First Amendment did not apply to her refraining from speech, because her ordered silence did not protect any of the interests at stake in the case.
Overbey is not the only person who Baltimore has awarded a settlement in the wake of a police brutality case. The Sun’s 2014 article stated the city had paid about $5.7 million in settlements since 2011. In 2017, it reported another four cases in which the city settled for a combined $1.1 million.