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Friday, August 18, 2023
MFIA Sues Allegheny County Jail over Gag Rules
On Aug. 17, the Media Freedom and Information Access (MFIA) clinic at Yale Law School sued Allegheny County for preventing employees of a Pittsburgh jail from speaking to the press without permission. The clinic is representing Brittany Hailer, director and co-founder of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, who has reported extensively on problems at the jail.
MFIA’s suit, filed with co-counsel Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, alleges that the jail’s restrictions on employee interactions with the media violate the First Amendment rights of the public and press, as well as the rights of the jail’s staff and contractors.
According to the complaint, since 2020, at least 20 men have died after entering Allegheny County Jail, a death rate nearly twice the national average among local jails of similar size. The jail is significantly understaffed, with a shortage of medical personnel qualified to provide incarcerated people with proper care, subjecting them to life-threatening health risks, the complaint says.
But jail policies prevent employees from speaking with members of the press unless granted permission by the warden, Hailer contends, hampering public disclosure of the jail’s problems. These gag rules are strictly enforced, and several individuals have been disciplined for speaking to the press or making public statements without permission.
The jail itself regularly fails to report information on deaths to the local media, despite regulations requiring it to do so. In this situation, employees are an important, reliable source of information about jail conditions. By effectively silencing employees, the gag rules suppress public understanding of poor conditions at the jail, according to the complaint.
“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.”
Several jail employees have refused to speak to Hailer because of the gag rules. Others will only speak to her “off the record.” The unwillingness of many of the most reliable sources to talk openly about events occurring at the jail critically hinders reporting on conditions at the jail, according to the lawsuit.
“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 Floyd Abrams Lecturer in Law David Schulz ’78, director of the MFIA clinic. “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.”
MFIA students Dorrin Akbari ’24, Liza Anderson ’24, Lauren Beccue ’23, Ayesha Durrani ’24, Eli Scher-Zagier ’25, and Tim Tai ’24 worked on the case under the supervision of clinical fellows Rachel Davidson and Michael Linhorst along with Schulz.
The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School is a law school clinic dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression by providing pro bono legal services, pursuing impact litigation, and developing policy initiatives. The clinic is a program of the Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression and Information Society Project.