WASHINGTON—Today, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Sylvia Gonzalez, a 76-year-old Texas grandmother who sued officials in Castle Hills, Texas, after they arrested her as punishment for criticizing the city manager. The case, Gonzalez v. Trevino, asks the Supreme Court to reconsider how government officials are given immunity when they conspire to jail their critics. In doing so, the case is likely to have wide-ranging ramifications for how government officials can be held accountable in a court of law.
“We are thrilled that the Court agreed to hear Sylvia’s case,” said Anya Bidwell, an attorney at the Institute for Justice (IJ), which represents Sylvia. “Criminal laws cannot be used to launder First Amendment violations and create backdoor censorship. But that’s exactly how Castle Hills officials used them against Sylvia.”
Sylvia’s story starts in 2019. After winning a hard-fought election, Sylvia became the first Hispanic councilwoman in Castle Hills history. In response to concerns raised by her constituents, she championed a nonbinding, citizen-signed petition calling for the removal of the city manager. This act of political speech and petition, protected by the core of the First Amendment, was met with a coordinated campaign of retaliation by Castle Hills officials.
Two months after presenting the petition, city officials engineered Sylvia’s arrest for misplacing a document in her binder at a council meeting. The document also happened to be the same petition to remove the city manager that Sylvia had championed. City officials argued Sylvia had stolen her own petition from the mayor as she was gathering her papers at the end of a council meeting. “Instead of issuing a summons for the nonviolent misdemeanor,” noted Judge David Alan Ezra, “[the city] obtained a warrant to arrest the 72-year-old, which ensured that she would spend time in jail rather than remaining free and appearing before a judge.”
After spending the day in an orange jail shirt, sitting on a cold metal bench, Sylvia was eventually released. That evening her mugshot was splashed across local media along with the baseless allegations. Sylvia was mortified. Although the district attorney immediately dropped the trumped-up charges, Sylvia knew the intimidation would continue and decided to resign from the city council.
“I didn’t think this could happen in America,” said Sylvia. “No one should be arrested for standing up for what they believe in. I’m hopeful that the Supreme Court will hold the city accountable so that no one else will have to go through what I went through. ”
With IJ’s help, in 2020 Sylvia sued the city, mayor, and police chief. The district court denied qualified immunity to the officials, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The Fifth Circuit held that because the city had concocted sufficient probable cause to arrest Sylvia, she could not bring a First Amendment claim.
“Constitutional rights mean nothing if they can’t be enforced against government officials who violate them,” said IJ Senior Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “This blatant abuse of power by government officials should have never happened. The petty tyrants in Castle Hills must be held accountable for trampling Sylvia’s First Amendment rights.”
Sylvia’s case is part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which seeks to remove court-created legal hurdles to constitutional accountability like qualified immunity. It is the second case of the project to be heard before the High Court and the first involving free-speech claims. “The First Amendment right to be critical of government officials is a cornerstone of American democracy, and by arresting Sylvia for daring to criticize them, Castle Hills officials blatantly violated that right,” said IJ President and Chief Counsel Scott Bullock.