Let’s score another victory for liberty. A Louisiana man who was arrested for making an innocuous joke on Facebook has won his lawsuit against the local sheriff’s department for violating his rights.
The case highlights a situation that happens far too often in local communities. The local law enforcement apparatus sought to use its position to punish a private citizen for making a joke they did not appreciate.
The situation occurred in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing and the authoritarian types were using it to expand the power of the government. Waylon Bailey wrote a satirical post on Facebook in which he compared the pandemic and the subsequent reactions to a zombie apocalypse and jokingly claimed that the local sheriff’s office would have to shoot “the infected.”
It wasn’t too long after Bailey posted the joke when multiple armed officers showed up at his home to arrest him. They claimed his joke violated a state anti-terrorism law. However, after being held in jail, the district attorney dropped Bailey’s case. Now, after a successful lawsuit, the law enforcement agency will have to pay up.
Last week, a jury determined that Waylon Bailey’s constitutional rights had been violated and ordered the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office to pay $205,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. During the COVID-19 pandemic Waylon made a joke about the virus, zombies, and the sheriff’s department on Facebook. Hours later, a team of armed sheriff’s deputies, dressed in tactical gear, arrested Waylon.
The charges were later dropped, but when Waylon sued the department and deputy responsible for the arrest, a federal court granted qualified immunity and dismissed the suit. Waylon’s trial attorneys at Bizer & DeReus teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national public interest law firm, and appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. After argument by IJ, the 5th Circuit reversed the dismissal, saying Waylon’s speech was protected by the First Amendment. This cleared the way for a jury to consider the case and award damages.
“I feel vindicated that the jury agreed that my post was satire and that no reasonable police officer should have arrested me for my speech,” said Waylon Bailey. “This verdict is a clear signal that the government can’t just arrest someone because the officers didn’t like what they said. I’d like to thank my lawyers for their hard work and determination.”
“It is telling that it took less than two hours for a jury of Mr. Bailey’s peers in Western Louisiana to rule in his favor on all issues,” said Andrew Bizer, Bailey’s trial attorney. “The jury clearly understood that the Facebook post was Constitutionally protected speech. The jury’s award of significant damages shows that they understood how Mr. Bailey’s world was turned upside down when the police wrongly branded him a terrorist. We are delighted with this result.”
This is an essential case for free speech. From the beginning, it was clear that the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office violated Bailey’s rights. Yes, law enforcement must watch out for potential threats on social media platforms in our current digital age. This does not mean they get to go out and arrest people for making obvious jokes – even if they believe the jokes are in bad taste.
The reaction from law enforcement seemed designed to intimidate Bailey and others who might have cracked a few clever one-liners about the pandemic and the local government’s response to it. Unfortunately for them, the First Amendment protects Bailey’s right to make apocalyptic jokes about the pandemic. It does not empower law enforcement to throw their weight around because of something he put on Facebook. This should be the precise outcome whenever a law enforcement officer oversteps his boundaries.