Award follows Federal Appeals Court ruling outlawing gag orders
BALTIMORE – Realizing a full victory for the free speech rights of the mostly Black and Brown residents of Baltimore who are survivors of police abuse, a federal judge has ruled that Ashley Overbey Underwood must be paid back tens of thousands of dollars by the City of Baltimore – with interest – after half of her settlement money for being brutalized by police was stolen from her by the City.
Today’s ruling caps a victory first won in 2019, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the City’s practice of requiring non-disclosure agreements, or “gag orders”, on people settling police misconduct cases brought against the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) violated the First Amendment. Following that ruling, the Baltimore City Council in 2019 passed an ordinance outlawing gag orders.
“It’s been hurtful to see and hear so many horrible things that happened,” said Ashley Overbey Underwood, who challenged Baltimore’s gag order policy. “But at the end of the day, it’s been amazing that we as a people stood together and was able to stand up to the bullies. If you have anything unjustly done to you, don’t give up, no matter how big that bully is. Whether it is the city, whether it is the mayor, whether it’s the police, whether it’s the judges, don’t stop fighting as long as you know you’re being true and honest, don’t give up. Eventually, you will prevail.”
Overbey v. Mayor of Baltimore was brought by Ashley Overbey Underwood, a woman improperly denied half of her settlement award after responding to comments online about her experience of being brutalized by Baltimore police. Joining Ms. Overbey as a co-plaintiff in the case was the Baltimore Brew, a news organization denied its First Amendment and statutory rights to obtain newsworthy public information from victims of police abuses.
In July 2019, the federal appeals court equated gag orders to the payment of “hush money” to keep victims quiet: “We hold that the non-disparagement clause in [Ms.] 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.”
“This order finally brings about well-deserved resolution for Ms. Underwood, who, throughout this long ordeal, never wavered in her commitment to fundamental free speech rights, notwithstanding the City’s bullying and thievery,” said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland. “For free speech to truly have meaning it must protect the rights of all people, and for too long Black people have had their free speech rights denied when they challenge abuse at the hands of police. This victory helps create a precedent that advances the First Amendment, so that hopefully one day it will truly protect everyone in the United States.”
Said Tyler O’Connor, pro bono counsel from Crowell & Moring LLP: “We are overjoyed that the district court awarded Ms. Overbey Underwood damages arising from the City of Baltimore’s unlawful enforcement of a gag provision in her 2014 settlement agreement with the City, which the Fourth Circuit held last year violated the basic principles enshrined in the First Amendment. With this result, which spanned several years of litigation, Ms. Ashley Overbey Underwood and the Baltimore Brew have struck a blow for free speech and greater transparency in policing in the City of Baltimore.”
Ashley Overbey and the Baltimore Brew are represented by Daniel Wolff, Nkechi Kanu, and Tyler O'Connor of Crowell & Moring LLP, as well as ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon and Staff Attorney Nick Taichi Steiner.