Man Arrested For Joke On Facebook Wins Lawsuit
In a landmark victory for free speech, a federal jury recently awarded $205,000 to Waylon Bailey, a Louisiana man who was arrested for making a zombie-themed joke about COVID-19 on Facebook.
The 27-year-old Bailey, of Forest Hill, Louisiana, faced a felony charge for “terrorizing” after he posted a sarcastic comment referencing the movie World War Z. The arrest, which occurred in March 2020, sparked nationwide criticism and raised questions about the limits of free speech during a time of crisis.
The incident unfolded on a Friday in March 2020, when a dozen or so sheriffs’ deputies, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying guns, descended upon Bailey’s home. They ordered him to his knees and placed him under arrest for a felony that carried a potential sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
The SWAT-style raid was in response to a Facebook post in which Bailey had joked about the pandemic, stating that “RAPIDES PARISH SHERIFFS OFFICE HAVE ISSUED THE ORDER to “SHOOT ON SIGHT” if they come into contact with “THE INFECTED.” He ended the post with a hashtag, #Covid9teen, and a reference to actor Brad Pitt.
The post was quickly reported to the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office, which assigned Detective Randell Iles to investigate. Iles, believing the post posed a serious danger, responded by arresting Bailey without an arrest warrant. Iles claimed that Bailey’s post violated a state law against “terrorizing,” which is defined as “the intentional communication of information that the commission of a crime of violence is imminent or in progress” or that “a circumstance dangerous to human life exists.”
The sheriff at the time, William Earl Hilton, stated that the arrest was necessary to “impress upon everyone that we are all in this together” and that spreading “false information” that could cause panic or harm to others would not be tolerated.
However, the Rapides Parish District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Bailey, determining that his post was protected by the First Amendment. Bailey then sued Detective Iles for violating his constitutional rights and making a false arrest.
Their case was ultimately heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which unanimously ruled in favor of Bailey. In her opinion, Judge Dana M. Douglas stated that Bailey’s post was clearly intended to be a joke and did not meet the legal test for incitement or true threats under the First Amendment.
The 5th Circuit also found that Detective Iles’ actions were not protected by qualified immunity, which shields government officials from liability unless the law was clearly established at the time of their actions. The court determined that Iles should have known that Bailey’s speech was protected and that he lacked probable cause to arrest him. The ruling also acknowledged that Bailey’s speech was chilled, as he agreed to delete the post under threat of the sheriff’s office contacting Facebook to remove it.
Last week, a federal jury validated all of Bailey’s claims and awarded him $205,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. According to Bailey’s trial attorney, Andrew Bizer, the jury’s decision was quick and decisive, indicating a clear understanding of the constitutionally protected nature of Bailey’s speech. In a statement following the verdict, Bailey expressed his relief at being vindicated and affirmed that “the government can’t just arrest someone because they don’t like what they said.”
Ben Field, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, noted that the verdict serves as a warning to government officials and a precedent for protecting citizens’ rights to free speech. “Our First Amendment rights aren’t worth anything if courts won’t hold the government responsible for violating them,” he stated. Bailey’s case, he added, will serve as a defense for others who face similar violations of their constitutional rights.