Minneapolis Mayor's Gag Order on Public Employees Violates Free Speech Rights, ACLU Warns

Affiliate: ACLU of Minnesota
February 7, 2003 12:00 am

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ST. PAUL Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s policy requiring public employees, including police officers, to clear media requests through the city’s communications director appears to be unconstitutional, the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union said today.

“People have a right to know what goes on in their government and to speak freely about public issues,” said Charles Samuelson, Executive Director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. “That’s what the First Amendment was meant to protect. This type of gag order does exactly the opposite.”

The policy tramples on public employees’ recognized First Amendment rights to speak freely about issues of public concern and deprives the public of timely access to important information about the activities of their public officials, he explained. Such barriers are allowed to exist in private companies, but they have no place in government.

“As much as some politicians talk about running government like a business, the fact of the matter is that government is not a business,” Samuelson said. “General Motors does not have the power to arrest you or to levy taxes, but the City of Minneapolis does. That’s where the Constitution comes in.”

Samuelson said his organization had left a phone message with the city’s communications director yesterday requesting a faxed copy of the policy, but that the director, Gail Plewacki, had not responded by midmorning today. The organization has also faxed an information request under the Minnesota Data Practices Act to Mayor Rybak.

Rybak’s policy, announced earlier this week, is on shaky legal ground, according to Samuelson. In the past 18 months, similar gag orders imposed in Rhode Island and West Virginia have been lifted following federal lawsuits.

In 2001, a federal judge in Rhode Island declared unconstitutional the Providence police department’s policy preventing police officers from talking to the media without prior approval of the police chief. A similar policy applied to employees of a state-funded hospital in West Virginia was lifted last year after a settlement. The ACLU was involved in both cases.

While Rybak’s policy has apparently softened within the last 24 hours, the requirement for prior approval before talking to the media still raises constitutional concerns. “The courts and the Constitution set a high bar to get over,” Samuelson said, “and this policy doesn’t even come close.”

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