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Gonzalez v. Trevino

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  1. First Amendment

Court: U.S. Supreme Court

Date Filed: Dec. 18, 2023

Background: In 2020, Sylvia Gonzalez, a former city council member for Castle Hills, Texas, filed a federal lawsuit against city officials, alleging that they retaliated against her for organizing a petition criticizing the town’s city manager.

The lawsuit alleges that Mayor Edward Trevino and the local police — allies of the city manager — collaborated to have her arrested and charged with concealing a government record after she accidentally placed the petition in a binder with other papers at the end of the public meeting at which the petition was presented. To bolster her claim that she was singled out for expressing her views of the city manager, Gonzalez combed through years’ worth of indictments issued under that statute to show that no one had ever been charged on facts like hers.

At the motion to dismiss stage, the district court held that Gonzalez’s First Amendment retaliation claims could move forward. The Supreme Court has held that plaintiffs bringing a First Amendment claim for retaliatory arrest must generally show that the decision to detain them was unsupported by probable cause — unless “objective evidence” suggests the plaintiff “was arrested when otherwise similarly situated individuals not engaged in the same sort of protected speech had not been.” The district court concluded that the exception applied in Gonzalez’s case.

On appeal, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that Gonzalez “fails to establish a violation of her constitutional rights.” While other courts of appeal have interpreted Supreme Court precedent to allow plaintiffs to invoke any kind of “objective proof of retaliatory treatment,” including “common sense,” to overcome the presence of probable cause, the Fifth Circuit concluded that Gonzalez needed specific examples of “other similarly situated individuals who mishandled a government petition but were not prosecuted.”

Gonzalez petitioned the Supreme Court. And in October 2023, the justices agreed to hear the case.

Our Position: Strong protections against retaliatory arrest are vital to a free, independent press, and the judgment of the Fifth Circuit should be reversed.

  • Retaliatory arrests cause irreparable harm to the newsgathering process and the free flow of information to the public.
  • To safeguard a free press, courts can and should consider all objective evidence that an arrest was driven by retaliation.
  • Premeditated retaliation against the press raises especially grave concerns that require more searching judicial inquiry.

Quote: “[O]fficers who retaliate against press coverage — even through unwarranted arrests or assaults — virtually never face prosecution for doing so, and internal discipline, too, is regrettably rare. That leaves one key line of defense for the right to report on policing: suits seeking damages for retaliation in violation of the First Amendment. If Nieves were wrongly read to narrow that path to accountability, the right to gather news about law enforcement would be undermined — and officers would be invited to ‘exploit the arrest power as a means of suppressing speech.’”

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