ACLU Hails Removal of West Virginia Hospital Employee Gag Order as Free Speech Victory

December 17, 2002 12:00 am

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HUNTINGTON, WV – The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia today applauded a federal judge’s decision to end a local state-run hospital’s gag order on its employees, which it says imposes an impermissible chilling effect on free speech.

The gag order was lifted after U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers approved a settlement between six hospital employees — the plaintiffs in the case — and administrators of the Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital.

“Judge Chambers and hospital officials made a wise decision in recognizing the free speech implications of this case,” said Andrew Schneider, Executive Director of the ACLU of West Virginia. “This is both a victory for the employees of the hospital and for the people of West Virginia.”

According to the ACLU complaint, the hospital’s personnel policy infringed on free speech rights by forbidding employees from giving “”reports or opinions to news media representatives or other non-Department of Health and Human Resources personnel regarding patients or controversial incidents or programs except as specifically authorized by the hospital administrator.”

The ACLU’s Schneider said that “the First Amendment is based upon the belief that in a free and democratic society the public has a right to know how its institutions, especially those that service the public health, are being run and hospital personnel must retain the right to tell the public what it needs to know.”

ACLU attorneys argued that the hospital’s policy effectively denied employees their fundamental right to discuss matters of public concern.

The ACLU complaint sought an immediate end to the hospital’s policy and maintained that, “the intimidating impact on employees of a requirement that they must ask the top officer of the agency for permission to exercise a basic privilege creates a chilling effect that can safely be described as an arctic blast.”

The agreed upon settlement sets forth an interim policy in which the hospital will not discipline or retaliate against employees who report accurate non-confidential information or state opinions so long as they not speak on behalf of the hospital. The hospital will also negotiate a redraft of the policy to meet ACLU approval.

The lawsuit was filed in United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia on behalf of Mitchell-Bateman Hospital employees: Jeffrey N. Watson, Todd Jenkins, Teresa Jenkins, Milissa Parker, Kara Anderson, and Derrick Vanoy. Robert Bastress, a professor of constitutional law at West Virginia University School of Law, served as the ACLU’s cooperating attorney.

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