Baltimore cannot buy the silence of victims of police brutality with legal settlements that include a nondisparagement clause, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled Thursday in a 2-1 panel vote, Courthouse News Service reports. The lawsuit began in 2012 when Ashley Overbey, a 25-year-old black woman, called police to report a burglary. Two officers beat her up and arrested her. After those charges were dropped, she sued and settled for $63,000. Overbey’s story was featured in a 2014 Baltimore Sun article about the city’s excessive-force settlements. When Overbey defended herself from racist trolls commenting on the newspaper’s now-shuttered online public comment forum, the city withheld half her settlement for violating the nondisparagement clause.
Joined by the Baltimore Brew, a web-based news outlet, Overbey sued the city again in 2017 to get her missing $31,500. A federal judge dismissed her claim, but the Fourth Circuit panel reversed. “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 wrote, joined by Judge Stephanie Thacker. Judge Marvin Quattlebaum dissented. The city’s argument — that Overbey was merely exercising her right to refrain from speech in exchange for money — turns previous free speech precedent on its head, the majority ruled. Deborah Jeon of the American Civil Liberties Union, which supported Overbey, called the ruling “a home run for the First Amendment, which is especially important in this cutting-edge case at the intersection between free speech and racial justice.”