New Mexico reporter files suit against sheriff alleging retaliation, intimidation

May 29, 2020

A reporter for a weekly newspaper based in Española, New Mexico, filed a lawsuit against the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff James Lujan for alleged civil rights violations in retaliation for her reporting on the law enforcement agency in the summer of 2019.

On May 29, 2019, former Rio Grande Sun reporter Tabitha Clay published a piece about former Deputy Jeremy Barnes tasing a student multiple times in the chest, the outlet reported. Clay told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker the piece garnered national attention, which is when the sheriff’s office began retaliating against her.

“Initially I had a great relationship with the Sheriff’s department until I wrote things that they didn’t like,” Clay said. “When the story got picked up in national news and the sheriff’s office got calls from across the country asking what was wrong with them, they got pretty upset with me for that. The sheriff basically said, ‘Look what you did, look what you caused.’”

According to a suit filed by the ACLU of New Mexico on Clay’s behalf: In June, Lujan directed department employees to stop providing records or comment to Clay. In July, Lujan told Barnes to order Clay to leave the scene of a car wreck and arrest her if she didn’t. In September, two department vehicles were parked outside of her apartment building in Santa Fe County in an apparent attempt to intimidate her, and deputies refused to allow her into the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla with her reporting materials, including her laptop and camera.

Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Lorenzo Aguilar did not respond to multiple calls requesting comment.

“The Sheriff and his minions responded with frightening efforts to silence Ms. Clay, through obstruction and even intimidation. This case arises from those efforts and strikes at the very core of the First Amendment and our freedoms,” the suit says.

The suit also stipulated that as Clay continued to report on the “questionable conduct” of the sheriff’s office, the department changed its official policies on disclosing dispatch logs and what information is contained in them.

“These changes included dispatch logs that had been provided to the Rio Grande SUN every morning for approximately ten years and which had contained significant information related to RASO activities,” the suit alleges. “Following Ms. Clay’s reporting, Defendant Lujan pushed through policy changes to delay providing dispatch logs until after two weeks, and limiting the information provided in the dispatch logs.”

According to the SUN, the truncated logs were the subject of a separate legal fight between the newspaper and the New Mexico Department of Public Safety; the state settled and implemented a new records policy in October 2019.

The ACLU filed a tort claim notice — the first step in suing the department — in 2019, and filed a formal suit on May 26, 2021.

The suit seeks punitive damages from the Board of County Commissioners for Rio Arriba County, the sheriff’s office, Lujan and Barnes “in connection with their retaliation and intimidation arising from the exercise of [Clay’s] constitutionally protected First Amendment Rights.”

“I ended up leaving my job at the SUN because of this,” Clay told the Tracker. “It was a lot going on, and it didn’t really occur to me how much trauma it caused until we went back through it and did interviews for the brief. This was a lot. This was really scary stuff.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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