HOUSTON—Justin Pulliam was standing still when a Fort Bend County deputy walked up and arrested him for interfering with the police in December 2021. While Justin had permission from the property owner to record a mental health call and was far from the active scene, the deputy cuffed him and put him in a squad car. 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.
This was not the first time that Justin had problems with the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office. In July 2021, Justin was excluded from a press conference at Sheriff Eric Fagan’s explicit direction. The First Amendment prohibits government officials from unreasonably restricting an individual’s right to record the police, and it doesn’t let them decide who is or isn’t a journalist. Today, Justin filed a federal lawsuit against the Sheriff and his deputies with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a non-profit public interest law firm that defends free speech nationwide.
“Arresting and prosecuting Justin is a violation of his First Amendment rights, and it can’t stand,” said IJ Attorney Tori Clark. “The Sheriff may not like Justin’s style, but the government doesn’t have the power to single out journalists because they don’t like their viewpoint.”
Justin believes that local government has the greatest impact on our daily lives and that our freedom depends on its transparency and accountability. He reports on everything from city council meetings to vehicle accidents—events that traditional media outlets may not cover. His videos are uploaded onto his YouTube channels, such as Corruption Report, and other social-media sites.
“Sheriff Fagan is unfairly discriminating against me because I sometimes criticize the police and other government officials,” said Justin. “It’s outrageous that I was harassed, arrested and prosecuted for exercising our constitutionally protected rights to film and report about activities by public officials from a different perspective. Filming the police makes communities safer and increases accountability.”
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. Independent journalists like Justin are increasingly stepping into gaps left by traditional media outlets in recent years.
The lawsuit seeks to protect Justin’s First Amendment rights in two ways. First, the public is allowed to record police subject only to reasonable restrictions. Again, Justin was far from interfering with police activities. Second, government officials cannot treat independent journalists differently from members of the established media or other members of the public. The deputy who arrested Justin singled him out from others on the scene just because Justin was recording. And the Sheriff excluded Justin from the press conference, which occurred at a public park, while choosing to answer questions from other news crews on site.
“Filming the police and other officials conducting public business is good for everyone,” said IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes. “It protects the public from police abuse, and it protects the police from false accusations of wrongdoing. We want to protect the rights of Justin and every other American to document government officials.”