J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · June 20, 2024

Media Contact: J. Justin Wilson, [email protected]

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that Americans’ First Amendment rights are violated when they are arrested in retaliation for their speech. The decision opens the courthouse doors for those Americans who have been arrested for criticizing the government.

“This is a great day for the First Amendment and Sylvia Gonzalez, who has courageously fought against retaliatory actions by government officials,” said Anya Bidwell, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice (IJ).  “The Supreme Court’s revision of its First Amendment retaliation doctrine ensures that Americans can seek justice when they have evidence of a retaliatory arrest. Retaliatory arrests undermine the very foundation of our democracy, and this ruling helps safeguard the rights of all Americans to speak out without fear of retribution. We are proud to have been part of this crucial victory for free speech.”

Sylvia’s case began in 2019 after she was elected as the first Hispanic councilwoman in Castle Hills, Texas. Following her election, she led a citizens’ petition to remove the city manager for mistreating employees and neglecting basic city services. This act of political speech resulted in coordinated retaliation by city officials.

Two months later, city officials—including the mayor and police chief—falsely accused Gonzalez of tampering with a government record, leading to her arrest. After a humiliating day in jail and her mugshot was splashed across local media, the district attorney dropped the charges. Despite this, the ongoing intimidation forced Sylvia to resign from the city council.

In September 2020, Sylvia partnered with the Institute for Justice to file a federal lawsuit to vindicate her First Amendment rights. The city’s attempts to dismiss the case failed in the district court, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and ruled that Sylvia failed to prove the arrest was unequivocally retaliatory, despite clear evidence of selective prosecution. And now the Supreme Court has ruled that Sylvia’s case can move forward.

“This fight was always about more than just me,” said Sylvia Gonzalez. “No one should have to go through what I went through, and with this decision, I’m confident it won’t happen again.”

Sylvia continued: “This has been a nightmare for the last five years. It has kept me up at night, but finally I can sleep knowing that the nightmare I’ve gone through will protect critics from retaliation in the future.”

The Court explained that the 5th Circuit “thought Gonzalez had to provide very specific comparator evidence—that is, examples of identifiable people who ‘mishandled a government petition’ in the same way Gonzalez did but were not arrested. Although the Nieves exception is slim, the demand for virtually identical and identifiable comparators goes too far.” Plaintiffs like Sylvia may proceed with evidence that “makes it more likely that an officer has declined to arrest someone for engaging in [the same kind of] conduct in the past.”

As our research suggests, retaliation such as that experienced by Sylvia is a bigger problem than Americans probably realize.  IJ’s Unaccountable found that, among federal appeals where officials claimed qualified immunity, alleged violations of First Amendment rights were surprisingly common—and most often, they involved retaliation by government officials against citizens engaging in protected speech or activity.

“The Institute for Justice launched the Project on Immunity and Accountability to tear down barriers between everyday people and their constitutional rights,” said IJ President and Chief Counsel Scott Bullock. “With today’s Supreme Court victory in Sylvia’s case, there is now one less barrier than there was yesterday.”

The Institute for Justice will continue to litigate Sylvia Gonzalez’s case as it continues to move forward.