HOUSTON—Justin Pulliam, a citizen journalist arrested while covering Fort Bend County Sheriff’s deputies, won a first-round victory in his civil rights lawsuit brought by the Institute for Justice (IJ). A federal district court rejected the sheriff’s attempt to dismiss the case. Pulliam will have the opportunity to hold the sheriff and his deputies responsible for violating his First Amendment rights to record the police and to be treated the same as established media or other members of the public. The court did dismiss a Fourth Amendment search claim, but Justin had already conceded that the claim was foreclosed by existing Supreme Court precedent—precedent that Justin one day intends to ask the High Court to overturn.
“The court recognized the gravity of Justin’s allegations—that Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office officials suppressed his free-speech rights—in rejecting the County’s assertion that its chief and deputies were immune to suit in federal court,” said IJ Attorney Christie Hebert. “The heart of the First Amendment is the right to speak out about government, and Fort Bend County does not get to pick and choose who will cover their activities.”
In July 2021, Sheriff Eric Fagan directed Fort Bend County officers to remove Pulliam from a designated media area, claiming that Justin was not “media.” After the officers escorted Justin away from the media area, Justin was unable to participate in or record the substance of the sheriff’s press conference on the discovery of the body of a missing person.
A few months later, in December 2021, a Fort Bend County deputy arrested Justin for interfering with police—even though Justin was far from the active scene and had permission from the property owner to record a welfare check on her property. Although the deputy sent Justin to jail, Fort Bend County failed to convict Justin on a misdemeanor charge of interfering with police. The case was declared a mistrial: five members of the jury voted to acquit, and only a single juror insisted on voting for conviction. There has been no indication whether the county will attempt to retry Justin.
“Local politicians might find it convenient to eliminate their critics in the new media, but the federal court apparently respects the legitimacy of my investigative journalism,” said Justin. “Thank you to the top-notch attorneys at IJ for this important victory in the fight to protect individual liberty.”