Jury Awards $205,000 in Damages to Man Arrested for Zombie-Themed COVID-19 Joke on Facebook

FOREST HILL, LOUISIANA – Waylon Bailey, a resident of Forest Hill, Louisiana, was arrested in March 2020 for a Facebook post in which he made a zombie-themed joke about COVID-19. The arrest, carried out with a SWAT-style raid by sheriff’s deputies, provoked controversy and raised questions about free speech. However, a federal jury recently awarded Bailey $205,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, recognizing the harm inflicted by the unconstitutional arrest.

Bailey expressed his satisfaction with the jury’s decision, stating that it vindicated his post as satire and highlighted the importance of protecting speech rights. The Institute for Justice, which represented Bailey in his lawsuit against the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office and Detective Randell Iles, echoed this sentiment.

The incident stemmed from a Facebook post Bailey made on March 20, 2020, just days after the first “stay-at-home” orders were issued in California. In the post, Bailey jokingly referenced the movie “World War Z” and suggested that deputies should shoot anyone infected with COVID-19 on sight. However, the authorities took the post seriously, viewing it as false information that promoted harm during the pandemic. Bailey was subsequently arrested for terrorism.

Bailey’s arrest raised constitutional concerns, with critics arguing that it violated his First Amendment right to free speech. The federal judge initially dismissed Bailey’s claims, citing the early stages of the pandemic and the seriousness of communicating false information. The judge likened Bailey’s post to falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater, referencing a famous Supreme Court case from 1919. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit disagreed with the judge’s reasoning, finding that Bailey’s Facebook post did not meet the legal standards for unprotected speech.

The 5th Circuit panel emphasized that Bailey’s post did not advocate imminent lawless action or pose a true threat. It concluded that Bailey’s speech was protected under the First Amendment, and Detective Iles should have recognized this. The court also noted that Bailey had a plausible claim of retaliation against Iles for infringing on his free speech rights.

Last week, a jury in Western Louisiana ruled in Bailey’s favor, awarding him significant damages and validating his claims. Andrew Bizer, Bailey’s trial attorney, highlighted the jury’s understanding of the constitutional protection of speech and the harm caused by the wrongful arrest. The case serves as a warning to government officials and sets a precedent for defending rights in similar situations.

Waylon Bailey’s story highlights the importance of safeguarding free speech rights, even in times of crisis. The jury’s verdict serves as a reminder that the government cannot arbitrarily arrest individuals based on speech they don’t agree with. The case holds broader implications for protecting First Amendment rights and ensuring accountability among law enforcement officials.