ALBUQUERQUE, NM - The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico and Rothstein Donatelli LLP today filed a lawsuit in the First Judicial District Court on behalf of Tabitha Clay, a reporter who was harassed and retaliated against by the Rio Arriba Sheriff's Office (RASO) in 2019 after reporting on deputy misconduct in the Rio Grande Sun. The lawsuit brings claims against RASO, the Board of County Commissioners, Sheriff James D. Lujan, and former Deputy Jeremy Barnes, for retaliation and violation of Ms. Clay’s First Amendment rights.
“Police officers can’t just silence journalists because they don’t like being exposed for wrongdoing,” said Leon Howard, legal director at the ACLU of New Mexico. “That’s not how democracy works. Members of the press help keep government entities accountable to the people by serving as watchdogs. Freedom of information is a baseline requirement for democracy.”
On May 29, 2019, Ms. Clay reported in the Rio Grande Sun that former Deputy Barnes unlawfully tased a minor. In the aftermath, RASO stopped providing her with records, including dispatch reports, which she previously had regular access to. On July 1, when she arrived at the scene of a fatal accident in Rio Arriba County, former Deputy Barnes yelled at her to stay outside the perimeter, threatened to arrest her, and yelled for someone to get him some handcuffs. Fearing she would be arrested, she left the scene. On another occasion, in September, Ms. Clay returned to her apartment after a long day, where she found two Rio Arriba Sheriff’s vehicles parked out front, one with former Deputy Barnes. The officers had no official business at the complex and appeared to be there only to intimidate her. After Ms.Clay published a story on September 12, 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.
“From 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,” said Ms. Clay. “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. 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.”
A copy of the complaint is available below.