This federal lawsuit seeks to vindicate the free-speech rights of Justin Pulliam, a citizen journalist who was excluded from a police press conference and arrested for filming a police encounter with a mentally ill man. Justin will ask the court to affirm that citizen journalists—those who create news and commentary with their own equipment and through their own social media channels—have the same First Amendment rights as everyone else and that government officials cannot retaliate against a citizen journalist because they don’t like his coverage or commentary. This case is part of a wider movement defending the rights of citizen journalists and holding government accountable when they violate those rights.
Justin believes that local government has the greatest impact on our daily lives and that our freedom depends on its transparency and accountability. He has made it his mission to document the actions of police and elected officials across Texas, but mostly where he lives: Fort Bend County. Fort Bend sits on the outskirts of fast-growing Houston and is among Texas’ wealthiest counties.
Despite having ample resources, up until February 2022 the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office (FBCSO) did not consistently use body cameras. With only dash cams in squad cars, the actions of deputies were cloaked in mystery whenever they left their vehicles.
As part of his project to instill more accountability and transparency into the actions of public officials, Justin tracks calls on a scanner and drives to the scene to document law enforcement responses. His particular focus is on recording calls where no one was accused of a crime, such as mental health checks. Afterward, his videos are uploaded onto his YouTube channel, Corruption Report. Justin’s viewpoint is clear: He is suspicious of authority and doesn’t take kindly to government officials who want to hide from the public.
This sometimes brings Justin into conflict with the elected officials and officers he covers. Starting last year, the FBCSO began to single Justin out and intimidate him. In July 2021, Justin and camera crews from several local TV stations were on the scene in a public park. Newly elected Sheriff Eric Fagan noticed Justin and instructed a deputy to escort him away from a press conference, saying Justin was not “media.” While the Sheriff answered questions from other reporters, Justin—under threat of arrest—was made to stand too far back to record or ask questions.
Things got worse in December 2021—one of the first times Justin recorded FBCSO officers on a call after the July 2021 incident. Officers unreasonably demanded that Justin leave the scene of a mental-health call and quickly arrested him for not complying. Justin was processed, strip searched, and jailed. Authorities are now prosecuting him for interfering with police duties, even though he did not interfere with the officers in any way.
Both actions were clearly unconstitutional. The First Amendment prohibits government officials from unreasonably restricting an individual’s right to record police activities, and it doesn’t let them decide who is or isn’t a journalist. The Constitution also prohibits officials from arresting or retaliating against individuals who exercise their free-speech rights.
Now, Justin and the Institute for Justice are fighting back against the Fort Bend deputies’ unlawful behavior. He has filed a federal lawsuit to protect his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and to ensure the constitutional accountability of government officials who violate them.
Justin reports on local-government issues, continuing a longtime passion for public service
Justin Pulliam has been concerned with and involved in local government issues since he was a student at Texas A&M University. Because of this experience, he believes that all members of the public have a right to know what their local governments are doing. Justin also believes that holding local governments accountable for their actions—through informed voting and civil discourse—is crucial to ensuring that members of the public remain free to exercise their constitutional rights.
To that end, Justin has been a full-time independent journalist covering local government issues for approximately three years. His reporting typically involves showing raw video footage, which he personally records, of government officials performing their duties in public. He also typically adds his own commentary to the videos, and he is often critical of the government’s actions. Justin reports on everything from city council meetings to vehicle accidents—events that traditional media outlets typically do not cover.
One of Justin’s main methods of reporting is recording local police officers when they respond to incidents in his community. Justin films these encounters to further his journalistic activities but also to ensure the safety of all on scene—both members of the public and police officers. He believes that transparency and accountability make everyone safer—particularly in Fort Bend County, where officers did not consistently have body cameras until just a few months ago.
The Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office attempts to shut down Justin’s reporting with escalating harassment and intimidation
Although Justin has been filming FBCSO deputies for years, his relationship with the department deteriorated significantly after Sheriff Eric Fagan took office. This conflict came to a head in two incidents in the latter half of 2021.
First, in July 2021, the Sheriff himself ordered FBCSO officers to remove Justin from a press conference in a public park to prevent him from filming.[i] FBCSO had been conducting a recovery operation related to a high-profile missing-persons case in the park. After asking Justin and other television crews to leave the park, FBCSO officers promised that someone would meet them at the park’s entrance to answer questions. Justin complied, and the Sheriff later met them at the entrance to hold a press conference.
However, the Sheriff demanded that Justin be removed from the press conference because he was “not part of the local media.”[ii] Officers forced Justin to move across the parking lot, where he could neither hear nor meaningfully record the Sheriff, while the Sheriff spoke to other news outlets.
The second incident occurred in December 2021—one of the first times Justin recorded FBCSO officers in the field after the July press conference.[iii] Justin learned that FBCSO was responding to a mental-health call and decided to film on scene. Although he was concerned that the officers would continue to harass him, Justin felt obligated to record this particular call because it involved a mentally ill man who he believed was at serious risk of being harmed.
Justin arrived at the property—a gas station—and began filming from a location in the parking lot, about 130 feet away from the active scene, where officers had instructed the mentally ill man’s mother to wait for her safety. Justin asked for and received her permission to record. However, a deputy approached him and ordered him and other bystanders to move across the road. Justin began to leave but stopped to film again while the officer spoke with the other bystanders.
The officer then ordered only Justin to leave the property. Justin continued to back up from the officer and toward the property line. Nonetheless, the officer approached Justin and arrested him. The officer also confiscated Justin’s recording equipment. Justin was forced to undergo a strip search and spent several hours in jail, during which the Sheriff personally called Justin in for a meeting and became angry when Justin refused to speak to him without a lawyer present.
As a result of his December arrest, Justin was charged with interfering with a police officer under Texas state law—a Class B misdemeanor—even though he did not at any time interfere with the officers on scene. That charge is still pending and is set for trial in February 2023. Justin plans to assert his free-speech rights there, too. The FBCSO has yet to return some of Justin’s recording equipment, including memory cards with the most complete recordings of Justin’s arrest.
The Constitution emphatically protects the freedom of speech—especially speech that is critical of the government
Journalism and political commentary like Justin’s are at the heart of the First Amendment. Justin gathers information about, broadcasts, and reports on government officials’ public activities—and he is often critical of the government when he does it. The ability to report on and criticize the government freely is essential to a free society. As Benjamin Franklin wrote decades before America’s founding: “To do public Mischief, without hearing of it, is only the Prerogative and Felicity of Tyranny: A free People will be [showing] that they are so, by their Freedom of Speech.”[iv] There is scarcely a stronger constitutional right than the First Amendment right not to be targeted, harassed, retaliated against, and punished for political speech and reporting that the government does not like.
Despite the importance of these basic constitutional protections, the FBCSO actively worked to shut down Justin’s reporting. The First Amendment’s free speech guarantees specifically protect the right to record police officers performing their duties in public—subject only to reasonable restrictions. But during both the July and December incidents, officers prohibited Justin from filming simply because they did not approve of his reporting. And in December, when Justin did not comply with the officer’s unreasonable demands, the officer responded by arresting and jailing him. Any reasonable officer would know that they can’t arrest someone and throw them in jail for simply recording government officials in public. Nor can they arrest someone for being critical of government officials—freedom of speech is not a privilege reserved only for people who agree with the government.
Likewise, the Supreme Court has long held that members of the public have the same First Amendment right to free speech as members of the traditional media.[v] Any reasonable officer would know that treating Justin differently simply because he is an independent journalist is unconstitutional. The government doesn’t get to decide who reports the news.
The Litigation Team
The litigation team consists of IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes and IJ Attorney Tori Clark.
The Institute for Justice
The Institute for Justice is a public-interest law firm that litigates nationwide to vindicate individual liberties. IJ is fighting to hold government authorities accountable in cases across the country. In Texas, IJ is representing a city council member arrested by police for her outspoken opposition to the mayor and city manager. In Ohio, IJ is suing East Cleveland police and government officials on behalf of a man arrested for his campaign advocacy. Finally, in Wisconsin, IJ is representing a woman targeted with zoning citations after speaking out at town meetings.
[iv] Silence Dogood, No. 8, 9 July 1722 (quoting London Journal, No. lxxx, Feb. 4, 1720/1), available at https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-01-02-0015.
[v] Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 684 (1972).