When Tabitha Clay heard former Deputy Jeremy Barnes over the police scanner calling an ambulance for a 15-year-old special needs student he just tased at Española Valley High School, she was immediately alarmed.
At the time, in early May 2019, Tabitha was a reporter for the Rio Grande Sun, covering Rio Arriba Sheriff’s Office (RASO) activities and the courts. Tabitha wasted no time calling Sheriff Lujan, who she had a close professional relationship with, to inform him of the incident and tell him that she would need the reports. The sheriff agreed to grant her access, as was protocol at the time.
In late May, after she obtained lapel footage of the incident, she published her story. At first, nothing unusual happened. But after the incident made national news a couple of days later, sparking public outrage, everything started to change.
“The next day the sheriff said, ‘Look what you caused,’ Tabitha said. “And I told him, ‘I didn’t do this.’ I didn’t hire that deputy and I didn’t put him in the school.’”
But Sheriff Lujan didn’t see it that way. He quickly directed his office to stop providing Tabitha with records, including dispatch reports, and to stop speaking with her.
On July 1, when Tabitha arrived at the scene of a fatal accident in Rio Arriba County to report on the incident, Barnes, the deputy who Tabitha reported on, yelled at her to stay outside the perimeter, threatened to arrest her, and called out for someone to get him some handcuffs. Fearing she would be arrested, Tabitha left.
On another occasion, in September, Tabitha returned to her apartment in Santa Fe County after a long day to find two Rio Arriba Sheriff’s vehicles, one with former deputy Barnes, parked out front. The deputies were clearly out of their jurisdiction and drove off after Tabitha arrived.
“I pulled up and I knew immediately that one of them was the same one who tased the kid, and who had threatened to arrest me two months before,” Tabitha said. “It was scary. It was really scary.”
“It became increasingly clear that the sheriff and deputies were actively trying to silence me...I began to live in fear that they might actually harm me if I didn’t stop reporting on the department."
Two days later, after Tabitha published a story concerning the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s failure to do in-service training since 2011, deputies refused to allow her to enter the Rio Arriba County Court with equipment she regularly used as a member of the press. RASO deputies only let Tabitha enter with her camera after the bailiff for the court came down and spoke with them, explaining that, as a member of the press, she was permitted to bring her equipment into the courtroom. Deputies still refused to allow her to bring in her phone or her laptop.
“It became increasingly clear that the sheriff and deputies were actively trying to silence me,” said Tabitha. “Their 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.”
A free press is critical to democracy
Members of the press help keep government agencies and actors accountable to the people by serving as watchdogs and calling out abuse. The ACLU has vigorously defended freedom of the press for 100 years because we know that a healthy democracy depends on an informed citizenry.
Though the First Amendment guarantees a free and open press, maintaining it requires constant vigilant protection from local and federal government agencies, which work to keep many of their activities secret from the public.
In recent years, members of the press have faced increased threats and assault. During his presidency, Trump consistently demeaned the press, calling them “the enemy of the American people,” “human scum,” and “the fake news media.” He also worked to undermine their credibility and deligimatize them at every turn. These attacks, coming from the highest office of government, created a hostile environment for journalists to work in. So hostile, in fact, that in 2019, Reporters Without Borders dropped the U.S. to No. 48 out of 180 on its annual World Press Freedom Index. The three-notch downgrade took the United States from a “satisfactory” place to work freely to a “problematic” one for journalists.
"If reporters are afraid they are going to be retaliated against for doing their jobs, that poses a threat to everyone in the community."
In the summer of 2020, when protestors took the the streets to exercise their First Amendment rights in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Trump not only encouraged a violent response, he also mocked and endangered reporters covering the demonstrations. After an MSNBC reporter was shot with rubber bullets he referred to the attack as “a beautiful sight.” He also sent federal law enforcement to places like Portland, where they secretly surveilled and assaulted journalists covering the ongoing anti-racism protests. The ACLU of Oregon sued on behalf of multiple members of the media who were attacked with flash grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas while covering the protests.
The ACLU of Minnesota filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of journalists who were targeted and attacked by Minneapolis and Minnesota police while covering protests the same summer. The lawsuit’s lead plaintiff, Jared Goyette, a journalist reporting on the demonstrations, was shot in the face with a rubber bullet.
In recent years, The Department of Homeland Security targeted journalists reporting on conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border on multiple separate occasions. Agents subjected reporters to secondary screenings, compelled them to disclose information about their sources, and searched their photos and notes. A secret government database leaked to the public in March 2019 revealed that the five journalists were specifically targeted as part of a concerted government effort to surveil people working at the southern border. In response, the ACLU national office, ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, and the New York Civil Liberties Union sued.
When Tabitha approached the ACLU of New Mexico for help in the fall of 2019, Legal Director Leon Howard was immediately concerned and interested in her case.
“Now more than ever, our country needs journalists who are brave enough to expose the truth and to cover stories that the American people deserve to know about,” said Howard. “If reporters are afraid they are going to be retaliated against for doing their jobs, that poses a threat to everyone in the community. Residents depend on a free press to find out about government abuse and to call for transparency and accountability.”
Tabitha’s work is an example of the importance of journalism in holding public officials accountable. Her reporting on former deputy Barnes ultimately led to his terminiation with RASO and led the Attorney General’s Office to investigate and charge him with child abuse and battery.
“Now more than ever, our country needs journalists who are brave enough to expose the truth and to cover stories that the American people deserve to know about."
She’s now also fighting for the public’s right to information through her lawsuit with the ACLU of New Mexico. After looking into the harassment and retaliation Tabitha faced, the ACLU began to build a case, filing a Torts claim in October 2019. Then, in May 2021, the ACLU of New Mexico and Rothstein Donatelli LLP filed a lawsuit in the First Judicial District Court against RASO, the Board of County Commissioners, Sheriff James D. Lujan, and former Deputy Jeremy Barnes, for retaliation and violation of Tabitha’s First Amendment rights.
Tabitha has since moved to Colorado to care for her grandmother, but she is undeterred. She’s still committed to reporting on stories that expose abuse of power and hopeful that her lawsuit with the ACLU will bring change to the community she once lived in.
“I would really like to see this lawsuit send a very strong message to police that you can’t just go after people that are telling the truth. That’s wrong,” Tabitha said.“The First Amendment is the first for a reason. It matters. And you don’t just get to trample all over it and go home at the end of the day.”