May 14, 2021

This past September, IJ filed a First Amendment lawsuit on behalf of Sylvia Gonzalez, a Castle Hills, Texas, councilmember who was harassed, bullied, and ultimately thrown in jail by political opponents. Her crime? Pure political speech: helping to organize a petition advocating for the resignation of the Castle Hills city manager. 

Seventy-two years old at the time, Sylvia spent a day behind bars, forced to wear an orange shirt and use a doorless bathroom. The charges against Sylvia were nonsensical, accusing her of trying to steal the petition she herself had championed. When the district attorney learned what happened, he dropped the charges. But the reputational and financial damage of the city politicians’ campaign to silence Sylvia was done. So she partnered with IJ to hold them accountable—and to ensure that others could do the same.

Predictably, the individuals who violated Sylvia’s rights—the mayor, the police chief, and a special detective—claimed qualified immunity. But this March, a district court judge threw out their motion to dismiss IJ’s case, a crucial step toward bringing the case to trial.

This was an incredible victory for Sylvia. Qualified immunity—a judge-made doctrine that protects all types of government officials from accountability, even when they intentionally violate the law—is notoriously difficult to overcome. Under qualified immunity, government workers can be held accountable for violating someone’s rights only if a court has previously ruled that it was “clearly established” that those precise actions were unconstitutional. If no such decision exists—or if one exists but only in another jurisdiction—the official is immune, even if the official intentionally, maliciously, or unreasonably violated the law or Constitution.

But the judge in Sylvia’s case saw through the government’s attempt to hide behind qualified immunity. He ruled that the law is indeed clearly established—the government has more than fair warning that throwing people in jail in retaliation for exercising their free speech rights is a violation of the First Amendment. 

You can watch the case video here.

As expected, Sylvia’s opponents are appealing the court’s order, asking the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the lower court and give them immunity after all. But we expected that the government would pull out all the stops to evade accountability, and IJ will stand by Sylvia until her rights are vindicated.

Anya Bidwell is an IJ attorney and the Elfie Gallun Fellow for Freedom and the Constitution.

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