03/07/2006

E-mail directed Md. not to speak to media, he sues

MELISSA HARRIS, SUN REPORTER

Copyright 2006 The Baltimore Sun Company

A Howard County police officer accused of running an illegal gambling operation filed suit yesterday, saying his department violated his right to free speech, including his ability speak out against Chief Wayne Livesay's campaign for a seat on the County Council.

The lawsuit follows an e-mail sent to officers Thursday by Livesay's public affairs director, Sherry Llewellyn, "reminding" them that they are not authorized to speak with reporters unless she has cleared such contact in advance.

In response, Pfc. Michael "Tykie" Thorn's attorney, Clarke Ahlers, filed suit in Howard County Circuit Court arguing that such a broad order would open Thorn and other officers to punishment if they "dared to comment about the candidacy of Wayne Livesay, or about his performance as police chief." Livesay filed as a Republican on Feb. 22 to run for the council in District 5.

Ahlers' argument, however, may have lost steam yesterday. After learning of the lawsuit, Llewellyn e-mailed officers with a clarification of her earlier statements, saying that they were not intended to limit political speech on officers' personal time. Rather, the rules pertain solely to "departmental matters."

Llewellyn said that neither she nor the chief could comment on the issue because litigation is pending. But her clarification yesterday appears to fall in line with the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings on free speech issues.

Mark Graber, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said that in a 1968 case, Pickering v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court granted government employees the right to speak "on matters of public importance" as long as it doesn't disrupt the workplace. In a later case, Connick v. Myers, the court denied such rights in private internal office matters.

"Under Pickering, an officer can surely seem to get up and say, `Don't vote for this bum,'" Graber said. "But if that officer is reassigned to a different beat, which is simply a personnel decision, that's a different issue."

This is the second time Ahlers, a well-known criminal attorney and former Howard County police officer, has sued the department for alleged violations of Thorn's rights.

Thorn's police powers were suspended in April after Anne Arundel County police arrested him on eight misdemeanor charges of running a Texas hold 'em poker operation once run out of a Glen Burnie warehouse. Thorn's trial is scheduled for this month in Anne Arundel County District Court, Ahlers said.

However, it appears that Llewellyn's original e-mail had little to do with Thorn's case. In it, she refers to "inaccurate facts" and "personnel information" that had been leaked to the press, including to a Washington Post reporter. Ahlers said that his client had not provided that information.

When asked then why he filed the suit on Thorn's behalf, Ahlers replied that he wanted "police officers who have worked under this average chief to be able to comment to the press without fear."

Howard County's general orders - the rules that govern officers' behavior - grant wide latitude to Llewellyn to control the release of information about internal police matters. Those rules have been in effect since 1998.

Matt Jablow, the director of public affairs for the Baltimore Police Department, said that his agency follows a similar procedure.

"Generally, you're not supposed to speak with the press before consulting with the public affairs office," he said.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com 

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