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FMG Law Blog Line

Can Silence Be Bought as Part of a Settlement of a Use of Force Claim?

Posted on: July 30th, 2019

By: Jake Loken

Can silence be bought, especially of those who claim excessive use of force? The City of Baltimore thought so, until the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said otherwise.

In Overbey v. Mayor of Balt., No. 17-2444 (4th Cir.), decided July 11, 2019, the Fourth Circuit found that public policy and First Amendment rights outweighed the interests of the City of Baltimore in enforcing non-disparagement clauses found in the City’s settlement agreements, which settled use of force claims.

The Fourth Circuit explained that when an individual brought claims of excessive force, the City of Baltimore would only settle the claims if the individual agreed to a non-disparagement clause, which constitutes a waiver of the individuals First Amendment rights, as it prevents that individual from speaking about their claims, the facts of their claims, or the settlement process itself. If the individual did speak out, the non-disparagement clause would be breached, and the individual would be required to return half of the settlement amount back to the City.

Usually, individuals may waive their constitutional rights as part of a settlement, but only if “the interest in enforcing the waiver is not outweighed by a relevant public policy that would be harmed by enforcement.” But in the case of non-disparagement clauses, where individuals’ First Amendment rights are waived regarding speaking out about alleged excessive, the Fourth Circuit said such clauses were unenforceable. The Fourth Circuit explained that “unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials can play a valuable role in civil life and therefore enjoy the protection of the First Amendment. Enforcing a waiver of First Amendment rights for the very purpose of insulating public officials from unpleasant attacks would plainly undermine that core First Amendment principle.”

The ruling is a reminder that public policy must be taken into consideration when deciding to contractual wave constitutional rights, and acts as a reminder that silence can be hard to buy.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jake Loken at [email protected].

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