Citizen Journalist Arrested for Filming Police Fights for Free Speech

Tori Clark
Tori Clark  ·  February 1, 2023

At IJ we often talk about our litigation pillars, like property rights or free speech. But the innumerable natural rights protected by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights don’t always fall into neat categories. They often blend and overlap. And some of our most important cases combine two or more areas of IJ litigation. 

Our latest example comes from Fort Bend County, Texas, where government efforts to silence an independent journalist implicate IJ’s decades of experience defending free speech along with our cutting-edge Project on Immunity and Accountability. 

Watch the case video!

Justin Pulliam is an independent journalist in Fort Bend County who covers local government issues, often by going to the scene of events himself and filming on-the-ground footage. He also brings his own unique viewpoint to his reporting and political commentary, which is often critical of government officials—including those in the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office (FBCSO). 

Although Justin has been filming FBCSO deputies for years, his relationship with the department took a turn for the worse after a new sheriff took office in January 2021. 

First, in July 2021, Sheriff Eric Fagan demanded that Justin be removed from a press conference at a public park because he was “not part of the local media.” Officers forced Justin to move across the parking lot, where he could neither hear nor meaningfully record Sheriff Fagan, while the Sheriff spoke to other news outlets. 

Second, in December 2021, FBCSO officers arrested Justin while he was filming a mental-health call. He began filming about 130 feet away from the active scene, where other bystanders were also observing and with the permission of the family that made the call. But a deputy approached him and ordered him to move across the road. When Justin did not comply, the deputy arrested him. Justin was forced to undergo a strip search and spent hours in jail, during which Sheriff Fagan personally called Justin in for a meeting and became angry when he refused to speak without a lawyer present. Because of the arrest, Justin is now being prosecuted for interfering with a police officer under Texas state law—a Class B misdemeanor. 

Journalism and political commentary like Justin’s are at the heart of the First Amendment. Today, there is scarcely a stronger constitutional right than the First Amendment right not to be retaliated against for political speech and reporting that the government does not like. But as Liberty & Law readers well know, doctrines like “qualified immunity” often make it impossible to hold government officials accountable even for obvious constitutional violations. 

That’s why, in December 2022, IJ sued Fort Bend County and several FBCSO officers, including Sheriff Fagan, on Justin’s behalf. And Justin’s case does not merely seek an injunction prohibiting FBCSO officers from harassing him in the future—it also seeks damages for the violation of his constitutional rights. 

Because Justin’s lawsuit seeks damages, the court will have to decide not only whether Justin’s rights were violated but also whether his rights were clearly established, putting the police on notice that their actions were unconstitutional and depriving them of qualified immunity. As a result, a victory for Justin won’t just vindicate his First Amendment rights—it will help ensure that future victims of similar retaliation are able to vindicate theirs.

Tori Clark is an IJ attorney. 

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