A Santa Fe jury decided late last week the New Mexico Tourism Department violated the state Whistleblower Act by retaliating against a former New Mexico Magazine editor by pressuring her to resign after she spoke up about what she considered politically motivated censorship at the state-run publication.
“For me, when the jury returned the verdict, it was an affirmation they thought censorship was harmful, too,” former senior editor Alicia Inez Guzmán said Monday.
“I felt like it was kind of a David and Goliath situation because the burden of the proof was really on [our] side, and we really had to prove our case,” she added. “It was beautiful to see the witnesses come together for something we all thought was right, standing up against censorship and abuse of power.”
The jury awarded Guzmán $15,000 in lost wages and $10,000 for her emotional distress, said Ernestina Cruz, one of her attorneys.
The $15,000 will be doubled under the Whistleblower’s Act, Cruz said, meaning Guzmán will receive a total of $40,000 from the state.
The state also must pay Guzmán’s legal fees. That figure hasn’t been finalized, but Guzmán’s attorney Carlos Quinones estimated it would be “at least” another $100,000.
The state already has paid a contract attorney $56,423 to defend the Tourism Department against the lawsuit, General Services Department spokesman Thom Cole wrote in an email Monday. That doesn’t include costs associated with the trial, which ended when the jury delivered its verdict around 8 p.m. Friday after deliberating for about five hours.
Guzmán, 35, filed the lawsuit in August 2020 after she said an internal dispute arose over a story written by noted Chicana author Denise Chávez titled “Libros para el Viaje,” or “Books for the Journey,” about the history of travel on El Camino Real and across New Mexico’s southern border, and the healing power of books.
Chávez, 73, submitted the story in early February 2020, Guzmán said in her lawsuit, and Editor-in-Chief Kate Nelson and New Mexico Magazine CEO Edward Graves reviewed and approved it for publication in the April 2020 edition.
But a few weeks later, after the magazine proofs already had been sent to the printer, Graves told Guzmán the article would be pulled, according to the lawsuit.
Guzmán asked for an explanation, the suit said, and Graves told her the article “was not middle of the road enough.”
When she pushed for more information, Graves said “he could see how a legislator from southern New Mexico might not like the article’s content” and withhold funding from the Tourism Department.
Chávez was “livid” when she was told the story wouldn’t run, the suit said, and quickly rallied support from state Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, and several other lawmakers, who wrote to Gov. Michele Lujan Grisham asking for reconsidering of the decision to pull Chávez’s story.
Guzmán said in her lawsuit she wrote a resignation letter indicating her last day would be April 16, but Graves told her to make it effective immediately and to clear her office in the next hour.
Guzmán — now a writer at the nonprofit news organization Searchlight New Mexico — said in a 2020 interview she was told 10 minutes after submitting her resignation that the article would be published. She tried to rescind her resignation, she said, but Tourism Secretary Jen Paul Schroer denied her request.
Chávez said in an interview last year her story only ran because of the pressure she and others put on state officials.
On Monday, she said the jury’s verdict was “a wonderful statement in the belief in journalism and the power to seek what is right and just.”
The victory was particularly significant, she said, because she, Guzmán, Quinones and Cruz are all native New Mexicans.
“Two Chicana Latina women — one from the north and one from the south — won a case for freedom of speech,” she said. “Think about the ramifications of that; it’s monumental.”
Chávez came from Las Cruces to testify during the four-day trial in Santa Fe last week. She said she used a cane that once belonged to New Mexico author Rudolfo Anaya to steady herself on the way to the witness stand, and she felt his energy as she testified.
Cruz said when Chávez testified, “Everyone was hanging on her every word, and it was powerful.”
Guzmán and Chávez said they never learned for certain why state officials objected to Chávez’s story.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Guzmán said Monday. “I kept asking this question, ‘What is so threatening about this story?’ And no one could answer the question.”
Chávez said she felt it had something to do with references in her story to the plight of impoverished immigrants along the state’s southern boarder. “We’re a troubled state and a poor state, and people don’t want to see what really exists,” she said.
Tourism Department spokesman Cody Johnson wrote in an email Monday the state agency offered Guzmán $50,000 to settle the case, but she refused the offer.
Quinones disputed that. He said the state’s best and last offer to Guzmán was for $10,000.
According to the publication’s website, the magazine “is self-sufficient with virtually no funding from the taxpayer other than office space.”
Johnson did not respond to a question about the magazine’s annual operating budget.