Independent journalist Justin Pulliam was barred from attending an open-air press conference by Fort Bend County Sheriff Eric Fagan in Richmond, Texas, on July 12, 2021. Pulliam subsequently filed a civil rights suit against the county and members of the sheriff’s office over the barring and a later arrest.
Pulliam lives in Fort Bend County near Houston and independently reports on local government and law enforcement for his social media channels, including on YouTube and Facebook. According to the lawsuit, he arrived at Jones Creek Ranch Park to film as officers responded to reports of a submerged vehicle connected to a missing persons case.
Sheriff’s deputies closed the park, directing Pulliam and other media to a designated area at its entrance for a press conference with a representative of the sheriff's office. Afterward, Pulliam went to his vehicle but returned when Fagan approached the designated area, according to his footage from that day.
Fagan was then filmed gesturing in Pulliam’s direction and saying, in part, “... if he don’t do it, arrest him. He’s not a part of the local media so he has to go back.” Moments later, two officers — identified in the lawsuit as Robert Hartfield and Jonathan Garcia — approached Pulliam, saying, “You are not media, so at the sheriff’s request could you step back this way with us please.”
Hartfield then gestured in the direction of Pulliam’s vehicle and escorted him approximately 85 feet away, where Pulliam said he could not hear what was being said by Fagan or the other journalists, according to the lawsuit.
Public interest law firm Institute for Justice filed the lawsuit on Pulliam’s behalf on Dec. 5, 2022, against the county, Fagan and four others. The suit alleges violations of his First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights by barring him from the July 2021 press conference, as well as by arresting him and seizing his equipment during a subsequent incident in December 2021.
“The Defendants did not have a compelling, or even legitimate, governmental interest in removing Justin from the open-air press conference, which occurred at a public park,” the lawsuit stated. “Instead, the Defendants removed Justin because they did not deem him a member of the media, disagreed with his viewpoint, and disliked that he was critical of the police both earlier that day and in his work generally.”
Pulliam told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the experience has significantly chilled his willingness to cover incidents involving the sheriff’s office or to attend its press conferences.
“I basically don’t film Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office anymore; I’ve greatly reduced my direct coverage of filming live police incidents,” Pulliam said.
On June 29, 2023, District Judge David Hittner denied the county’s motion to dismiss the majority of Pulliam’s claims. Hittner ruled that Pulliam had sufficiently argued that he had been singled out for exercising his First Amendment rights and that the officers are not protected by qualified immunity at this time.
The Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment when reached in July 2023, citing the ongoing litigation.
Christie Hebert, one of the attorneys at the Institute for Justice representing Pulliam, said in a statement following the ruling that Hittner recognized the gravity of Pulliam’s claims.
“The heart of the First Amendment is the right to speak out about government, and Fort Bend County does not get to pick and choose who will cover their activities,” Hebert said.
Hebert told the Tracker that the case is tentatively scheduled to go to trial in early 2024.