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Texas Federal Judge Tosses Qualified Immunity Defense in First Amendment Retaliation Case

Castle Hills, Tx. woman wins first round in a constitutional suit to vindicate political speech rights

On Friday Sylvia Gonzalez—a retiree and former Castle Hills, Texas, councilmember thrown in jail for speaking out against her local government—got the news she has waited more than a year to hear. In a powerful ruling issued Friday afternoon, Judge David Alan Ezra dismissed the city’s motion to dismiss and ruled that her case alleging First Amendment retaliation against the city’s chief of police, the mayor, a detective, and the city itself can proceed.

“I’m incredibly grateful to be able to proceed with my case,” said Sylvia Gonzalez, who is represented by IJ in her fight. “I’m glad that after all I’ve been through the truth will prevail.”

This decision marks an early and important victory in the fight to vindicate Sylvia’s constitutional rights. Too often, government officials argue that a legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity” shields them from being held responsible for violating individual rights. Soon after Sylvia filed her lawsuit, the government defendants claimed immunity and argued that the case should be thrown out. Judge Ezra disagreed and ruled for Sylvia. Now, Sylvia and IJ can proceed and are looking forward to their day in court.

Sylvia’s case started in May 2019, when she decided to run for a city council seat. As part of her campaign, she helped organize a non-binding petition calling on the council to remove the Castle Hills city manager from his position. This did not sit well with the mayor and the police chief, among others, who engineered a campaign to retaliate against Sylvia by removing her from office. When that failed, they engineered a plot to throw her in jail—nonsensically arguing that she tried to steal her own petition. Seventy-two years old at the time, Sylvia spent an entire day behind bars, forced to sit on a metal bench (and not allowed to stand), wear an orange shirt, and use a bathroom with no doors or opportunity for privacy. Her mugshot appeared on TV screens all over Castle Hills and San Antonio.

When Sylvia sued, the defendants invoked qualified immunity—a doctrine that shields government employees from being held accountable, even when they violate individual rights. To overcome immunity, the victim must prove that a court has ruled that the exactly the same conduct was already ruled unconstitutional.

But here, the court saw through the government’s attempt to hide behind qualified immunity. Judge Ezra ruled that the law is clearly established, and the government has more than fair warning that throwing someone in jail in retaliation for exercising their free speech is a violation of the First Amendment. The judge also ruled that the claims against the city must move forward.

“This decision is a remarkable victory for government accountability,” said Will Aronin, one of the IJ lawyers representing Sylvia in this case. “The judge ruled that Sylvia’s claims against every single defendant—including the city itself—can proceed. Now, Sylvia will finally get her day in court and we’re confident a jury will see the city’s actions for what they were—an unconstitutional attempt to punish her for exercising her constitutional rights.”

Sylvia’s case is a part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which is dedicated to the principle that our Constitution is not an empty promise and must be enforced. In addition to Sylvia’s case, the Institute for Justice is litigating several other constitutional cases that arose in Texas: including one on behalf of a Vietnam veteran who was senselessly beaten by security guards at a veterans hospital in El Paso, Texas, and one on behalf of an innocent homeowner in McKinney, Texas, who was left holding a bill for more than $50,000 after a SWAT team destroyed her home in pursuit of a fugitive.

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