Director of PINJ sues Allegheny County over First Amendment claim

Attorneys from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic sued Allegheny County, on behalf of Brittany Hailer, the director and co-founder of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. The lawsuit alleges the jail’s overly broad policies on employee interactions with journalists violate the First Amendment rights of the public, press and jail staff. The complaint was filed in federal court in the Western District of Pennsylvania. 

“The Allegheny County Jail’s overly broad and unnecessarily restrictive ‘gag’ rules are a clear violation of the First Amendment. 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 attorney for Pennsylvania for he Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative. 

“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.”
Hailer told 90.5 WESA, 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.”

PINJ has reported on the jail’s kitchen conditions, staffing vacancies, use of solitary confinement and the 20 men who died following their incarceration at the jail. These stories were confirmed and reported despite the jail’s media policy. However, it is PINJ’s position that it is vital for workers to be able to peak freely and on the record to the press to support transparency of local government and incarceration. 

Burke represents Hailer in a separate lawsuit against Allegheny County for withholding the autopsy records of Daniel Pastorek, a man who died in custody in 2020. That case was heard in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania and in July of 2023, the county was ordered to disclose the records to Hailer and PINJ. 

Pastorek’s death is the first jail death Hailer covered, which resulted in three years of tracking and reporting deaths at the jail, an effort that has been recognized regionally and nationally. Since April 2020, 20 men have died following their incarceration at the jail. Hailer’s reporting has pushed Pittsburgh local media into covering the jail’s death rate.

Read more about Hailer v Allegheny here.