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Should government officials be shielded from lawsuits when their critics are jailed?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Before the Supreme Court today, oral arguments in a case that has its roots in petty small-town politics - the case could have implications for the future of free speech and what's known as qualified immunity. And at the heart of Gonzales v. Trevino is the question, should government officials be shielded from lawsuits when their critics are jailed? David Martin Davies of Texas Public Radio has our story.

DAVID MARTIN DAVIES, BYLINE: Castle Hills is a long way from the white marble of the Supreme Court. It's a small enclave municipality tucked inside San Antonio. With a population of fewer than 4,000, it's a quiet community, but things do get rowdy at their city council meetings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SYLVIA GONZALEZ: Well, I...

CLYDE MCCORMICK: ...Have open...

GONZALEZ: ...I have some questions.

MCCORMICK: Excuse me, I'm...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Miss Gonzalez.

MCCORMICK: ...I'm talking right now. You can wait.

GONZALEZ: Wait a minute. It's not your turn.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Miss Gonzalez, can you let Mr. McCormick finish?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She shouldn't get to interrupt.

GONZALEZ: It's not his turn.

DAVIES: This was Sylvia Gonzalez's first meeting after being elected alderwoman in May 2019.

GONZALEZ: The meeting was not in control.

DAVIES: A lot of the disorder was directed at Gonzalez. The then-72-year-old was the first Latina elected to city council. She had started a petition to remove the city manager, alleging he wasn't doing his job, especially when it came to having the streets paved.

GONZALEZ: It was just a petition. I mean, it's in our Constitution. We have a right to petition our government.

DAVIES: At the end of the marathon meeting, Gonzalez scooped up the papers in front of her, including the petition, which was now city property.

GONZALEZ: So I just took all these papers, like this, and I stuck them on the table. And I opened my folder and put them in there. That petition was in my folder for less than five minutes.

DAVIES: But that was long enough for Mayor JR Trevino. Two months later, Gonzalez was in the Bexar County Jail, handcuffed and wearing orange prison garb. She was charged with tampering with a government document. After a full day being booked, Gonzalez was released. The charges were eventually dropped, but Gonzalez says she was humiliated. Under pressure, she resigned from city council.

GONZALEZ: This has proven - and they have done a good job of getting rid of me.

DAVIES: In 2020, Gonzalez sued the City of Castle Hills, Mayor Trevino and a police chief, charging them with retaliatory arrest for exercising her First Amendment rights. Mayor Trevino and other officials declined to comment due to the ongoing litigation.

Suing a city and city officials isn't easy because of a thing called qualified immunity, which is where the Supreme Court comes in. Qualified immunity protects government officials from lawsuits. It's often applied to police officers but also protects city officials from liability. But critics of qualified immunity say it shields officeholders from accountability and can lead to abuse of power.

TARA GROVE: Normally, when people think about the Constitution, they want to figure out, well, did they violate my rights, or did they not? That's part of the question, but it's not all of the question.

DAVIES: That's University of Texas law professor Tara Grove. She says when it comes to qualified immunity, the question of motivation here is key.

GROVE: It's really hard for anybody to know what other people were thinking, at least when we're talking about a court of law. Of course, we all have our views about a set of facts when we look at it. But courts have to figure out, like, so what does the evidence show?

DAVIES: Gonzalez's attorney, Anya Bidwell, says her client's case is about more than nasty small-town politics. But she says it's in communities like Castle Hills where the Constitution is so important.

ANYA BIDWELL: Look what happened to Sylvia. It's very difficult for her to even operate comfortably within her little city, so it really shows you the message. You know, you stand up to your critics in your small community, you will be ostracized.

DAVIES: Gonzalez says she never imagined that she would be at the Supreme Court, but she also never imagined that she would be arrested for speaking out. Now she just wants the Supreme Court to clear her name, and she says she plans to stay out of Castle Hills politics.

For NPR News, I'm David Martin Davies in San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Martin Davies is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience covering Texas, the border and Mexico.