Attacks on the Press

Journalist Sues New Mexico Sheriff’s Office Over Alleged Retaliation

Española, New Mexico
A sign marks a Motel 6 property in Espanola, New Mexico, U.S., July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

On May 26th, New Mexico journalist Tabitha Clay filed a lawsuit against the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office. Clay claims local law enforcement violated her First Amendment rights by allegedly retaliating against her and withholding information after she wrote an article in May of 2019 detailing a sheriff’s deputy’s deployment of a taser on a 15-year-old special education student.

Filed in New Mexico’s first judicial district court (a state trial-level court), Clay is represented in the lawsuit by the ACLU of New Mexico and a private law firm. In addition to the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office, the lawsuit also names three other defendants – the Board of County Commissioners for Rio Arriba County, James D. Lujan in his official and individual capacities, and Jeremy Barnes in his individual capacity. Lujan is the county sheriff, and Barnes was the sheriff’s deputy involved in the tasing incident.

After the article ran in the Rio Grande Sun, Clay claims her access to certain reports and dispatch logs was curbed. (Warning: the article contains footage of the tasing incident.) The lawsuit asserts that “[a]s Ms. Clay continued to write articles that exposed the questionable conduct of the Rio Arriba County RASO, the withholding of information and intimidation continued and increased under the guise of changing official ‘policy’ (policies that changed significantly and in direct relation to Ms. Clay’s reporting).”

Moreover, the complaint details examples of alleged retaliation following publication of the story. Clay claims she was threatened with arrest by Sheriff’s Deputy Barnes while at the scene of an automobile accident, and that Barnes and another officer had parked their police vehicles outside Clay’s residential complex in September of 2019. Clay further alleges she was barred from bringing her press equipment into the county courthouse by sheriff deputies.

The lawsuit emphasizes that “[t]here is a causal connection between Ms. Clay engaging in constitutionally protected activities and Defendants’ reactions, which were taken as a direct response to Ms. Clay’s exercise of her First Amendment rights and constitute unlawful retaliation by public officials for Ms. Clay engaging in activity protected by the First Amendment,” adding that “[t]he actions of Defendants Lujan and Barnes were unlawful and would chill an ordinary person in the exercise of First Amendment rights and Ms. Clay suffered damages as a result of their conduct.”

The ACLU of New Mexico issued a press release addressing the lawsuit, in which its legal director, Leon Howard, stated in part that “[p]olice officers can’t just silence journalists because they don’t like being exposed for wrongdoing.”

According to the same press release, the plaintiff, Tabitha Clay, said that “[f]rom denying me access to records, accident scenes, and the courts to showing up at my home to intimidate me, it became increasingly clear that the sheriff and deputies were actively trying to silence me,” further adding that “[t]heir harassment didn’t just prevent me from doing my job. I began to live in fear that they might actually harm me if I didn’t stop reporting on the department. I’m bringing this suit to send a clear message to the sheriff and deputies that their attempts to bully reporters into giving up their First Amendment rights won’t go unanswered.”