CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated Gainesville's population.
Joel Najera never imagined a $10 GoFundMe donation would land him in jail.
Last week, the candidate for Gainesville ISD school board turned himself in after learning he had a warrant out for his arrest for "online impersonation." Najera had made a contribution to a local anti-racist organization under the Gainesville police chief’s name, prompting an investigation.
Home to some 17,000 people as of 2019, according to the U.S. census, Gainesville is located around 70 miles north of Dallas.
Najera is in his final semester of college and looks forward to starting graduate school in the fall, but his ongoing legal battle has been “really distracting.”
“These aren’t things I want to be focused on,” Najera told the Observer. “I have kids and I need to be focused on them, too, instead of this First Amendment case, but here we are.”
Najera donated to the legal fund of a local grassroots organization, PRO Gainesville, which for months has protested for the removal of the town’s Confederate statue. Three of that group’s leading members were also arrested after they walked in the street during a demonstration last summer.
A PRO Gainesville ally, Najera made the GoFundMe donation under Gainesville police Chief Kevin Phillips’ name. It included the message: “I need attention, and these kids help me get it. Every villain needs a hero!”
Najera saw it as parody, but apparently, Phillips wasn’t laughing.
“I do support law enforcement, but they’re not immune from criticism; whenever they’re filing excessive charges, people need to know,” Najera said.
To ensure an “unbiased” investigation, Phillips asked the Texas Rangers to launch an investigation into who made that contribution, according to the Gainesville Daily Register. After a Ranger contacted Najera, he fessed up.
Phillips told the Observer that the GoFundMe contribution made it appear as though he's working against his own police force. "So that really creates — it damages credibility and respect within the department," he said.
Not everyone agrees.
In a letter Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) demanded that Cooke County attorney Edmund Zielinski immediately drop the charges against Najera, calling his prosecution “unlawful and unconstitutional.”
Zielinski’s office declined the Observer’s request for comment because “he doesn’t discuss ongoing cases.”
Najera faces a Class A misdemeanor charge, which is punishable by up to a year in county jail and a fine of up to $4,000, said his attorney Alison Grinter. His bond was set at $3,000, which Grinter called “ridiculous” because it’s higher than most felony bonds.
Grinter hasn’t seen anything quite like her client’s case; “spite donating” is a real American tradition. People give to Planned Parenthood under former Vice President Mike Pence’s name all the time, for instance.
“I think that if you’re going to be a public official in the United States you need to be OK with being criticized; I think that comes with it,” Grinter said. “If Kevin Phillips doesn’t want to be made fun of on the internet, he should probably consider doing a better job as police chief.”
Many would see Najera’s comment as a “joke and obvious satire, parody, and criticism of a public official,” which are protected by the First Amendment, according to the ACLU’s letter. Americans are free to criticize public officials “with impunity” even if those officials feel “lampooned by the joke.”
“This is what enables comedians to impersonate public officials on Saturday Night Live,” the letter continued.
Although the ACLU is alleging Najera's comment is protected under the Constitution, Phillips said "the First Amendment stops when it starts harming someone else." In fact, Phillips said the 14th Amendment guarantees all citizens equal protection under the law, including law enforcement.
"Nowhere when we took our oath as police officers did we give up any of our rights," he said.
Black Lives Matter seems to be an existential threat to Gainesville, Grinter said, and the town has taken its “own little culture war way too seriously.” Law enforcement’s attacks on Najera also enter the political realm since he’s running for office, making the move to silence him all the more nefarious.
PRO Gainesville co-founder Justin Thompson said the city’s police have long retaliated against the group’s supporters. Many no longer feel safe protesting amid the current political climate and because they are under “constant pressure" from law enforcement.
Officers sometimes park their vehicles on the same block as PRO Gainesville members’ homes, Thompson said. Police also followed the group’s founder after she dropped off her kid at daycare, Thompson said; other members have received tickets for “broken” taillights that were still working.
Yet Phillips said the department doesn't have a "personal vendetta" against PRO Gainesville. Police vehicles aren't following members; they just live in a small town. Phillips also wasn't aware of the broken-taillight incidents, but that sort of police conduct "wouldn't be tolerated."
Even though PRO Gainesville won’t back down, Thompson said he fears police will ramp up their intimidation campaign.
“The fact that they’re still trying to criminalize us in any way they can is frightening,” he said. “Because it’s like they’re abusing their power in order to basically try to shut down activists in the community, or anybody who disagrees with them.”
PRO Gainesville is calling for Phillips to resign and for an independent racial bias audit of the town’s police department. But Phillips said his department already submitted a satisfactory racial profiling report to the proper state agency, and he's not planning to step down.
"We wouldn’t have many police officers if everyone resigned because someone had criminal charges filed against them," he said.
Although he stands by his support for social justice reform, Najera is sorry if his actions hurt Phillips. Yet Gainesville authorities should realize their case against him is wrong, Najera said; they’re wasting resources and giving themselves a bad name.
If authorities really want to pursue his case, Najera is prepared to take it all the way to the Supreme Court.
“This will go as far as they’re willing to let it,” he said. “They should really learn how to pick their battles. I don’t think this one’s really worth [it].”