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Reporter sues Allegheny County over jail ‘gag order’

The Allegheny County Jail.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA News

Allegheny County is being sued in federal court by a Pittsburgh journalist, who alleges that an Allegheny County Jail “gag order” violates the rights of journalists covering the jail and jail employees’ First Amendment rights.

The suit was filed Thursday afternoon by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School.

According to the complaint, the “gag rules” include multiple Allegheny County Bureau of Corrections policies that forbid jail employees from speaking to the media without prior approval from the warden or his designee. The rules also instruct employees to forward any media requests to the warden. Brittany Hailer, director of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and plaintiff in the suit, received copies of the policies in March 2022, after she made a public records request, the lawsuit said.

Jail employees “wish that they could use media to expose the things that are happening within the jail. But they're bound by these policies that don't allow them to get that information out to the public,” Hailer said.

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People incarcerated at the county jail, staff, and activists have long reported ongoing issues with food, medical care, working conditions and short staffing. Since 2020, 20 men have died following their incarceration at the jail; some died in the facility and others died at the hospital following their release. Critics say the death rate is almost twice the national average among local jails of similar sizes. Jail administrators maintain that ACJ’s death rate is average.

“People are bearing witness to those things that we all know are happening … they’re confirming those things,” Hailer said.

But they’re reluctant to speak to her on or off the record. Some fear they may lose their jobs, Hailer said.

“Even though they're off record, even though they're anonymous, there is still a sense like they could get in trouble and they're doing that and they're talking to me despite that, which I think is a real testament to the fact that they want the truth out.”

Spokespeople for both the county and the jail declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

The suit asks the court to declare that the policies violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments and end their enforcement. It also seeks plaintiff costs and attorneys’ fees, but no other financial compensation.

David Schulz is the director of the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic. He noted that gag rules aren’t unique to the county jail, though he called their policies a “key example of the problem created by these rules.”

Most government bodies require reporters to make requests through a public information officer or communications department, rather than directly asking the person or department they hope to speak with.

“There's a growing problem with agencies at all levels of government adopting rules that prohibit their employees from speaking to the press. And this is having a major impact on the ability of the public to get information that it needs if democracy is going to work,” Schulz said.

Schulz said governmental agencies can impose certain restrictions on their employees, “but only to the extent that those limitations are necessary to prevent disruption of the internal operations of the agency.”

“In other words, an agency can do certain things to be sure that it operates properly, but an agency can't reach out and stop employees from talking about things that they see or hear on the job that the public has a right to know. And that's what this case is about.”

The gag rules in this case are “extremely broad,” said Schulz, noting that’s one reason they’re so concerning. Jail employees are barred from speaking to the media, posting on social media and communicating with the public without approval from superiors. The enforcement of these rules can have a “chilling effect,” he said.

According to the Society for Professional Journalists, which praised the suit, it’s believed to be the first of its kind brought by a journalist on this issue.

“These speech bans, which journalists have seen grow more pervasive and controlling, are among the most damaging threats to free speech and public welfare today,” SPJ National President Claire Regan said in a press release. “SPJ has repeatedly led in opposing these restrictions which it has called censorship and authoritarian. Hailer’s suit shows journalists themselves can fight back in court against people in power silencing subordinates in terms of talking to reporters or forcing them to report conversations to authorities.”

The lawsuit was filed on the heels of a recent legal victory for Hailer and the Reporters Committee. Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court ruled in July that Allegheny County must release the full autopsy report for Daniel Pastorek, who died in the jail in late 2020. In the 6-1 decision, the court reversed an earlier court decision and ruled that counties must provide the full reports to reporters or members of the public when requested.

County officials did not file an appeal, and the 30-day window in which they could has expired.

Hailer said she hopes the most recent suit will make it easier for the press and public to get information from officials.

“We are entitled to information,” she said. “We're not trying to pick fights or whatever. It's just that the public deserves to know and that free communication should be happening.”

Updated: August 21, 2023 at 11:14 AM EDT
Updated to correct the spelling of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at