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Gonzalez v. Trevino—Free speech retaliation case at SCOTUS

Americans have a long tradition of running for office with the goal of improving their local communities. After a fulfilling career in communications, Sylvia Gonzalez did just that. She knocked on the doors of 500 residents in Castle Hills, Texas, and squeezed out a win, beating a well-connected and powerful incumbent. In the process, Sylvia became the first Hispanic woman to become a council member in her hometown.

After her election, Sylvia got right to work. Acting on her campaign promise, she helped spearhead a citizens’ petition advocating for the removal of Castle Hills’ city manager Ryan Rapelye. The petition was a non-binding vote of no confidence in Rapelye, who had come under criticism for mistreating his employees and failing to address citizens’ concerns, such as fixing their streets.

The petition did not sit well with Castle Hills’ incumbents. Within weeks of winning her election, the harassment began. First, the city attorney, who was aligned with the mayor and the city manager, claimed she wasn’t properly sworn in and replaced Gonzalez on the city council with the woman she’d just beaten. When a judge reinstated Gonzalez, the city officials didn’t give up.

In fact, that was only the beginning. In the midst of their attempt to unseat her, the mayor and police chief used bogus charges and a rarely-used law to have Gonzalez arrested and thrown in jail—but Gonzalez had done nothing wrong. Once the county prosecutor got involved, he dropped the case against her.

Finally, after beating back the city twice, a group of citizens aligned with the mayor filed a lawsuit claiming Sylvia was incompetent. Sylvia stood her ground and won—but by then the damage had been done. Sylvia’s mugshot had been splashed across the news and her reputation dragged through the mud. Exhausted—with tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills—she stopped the fight to reclaim her seat.

The city’s retaliation clearly violates Sylvia’s First Amendment rights. If America’s democracy means anything at all, it means that a city can’t arrest its residents for speaking out against a city manager. The fundamental right of political speech is high in the hierarchy of First Amendment values and the courts exist to ensure that it is protected.

On September 29, 2020, Sylvia partnered with the Institute for Justice to file a federal lawsuit against Castle Hills to vindicate her First Amendment rights and hold the city officials accountable. On October 13, 2023, after a prolonged fight with the government over qualified immunity, the United States Supreme Court agreed to take Sylvia’s to review whether a lower court was correct to side with the Castle Hills officials.

The lawsuit is part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which is devoted to the simple idea that government officials are not above the law; if citizens must follow the law, then government must follow the Constitution.

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