PEN America Files Legal Brief Calling for Release of Student Detained for Reading Poem

Jul 29, 2019
7:18 PM

The following media release was shared by PEN America on Monday:

NEW YORK — PEN America today filed a friend of the court brief urging a federal appeals court in California to immediately release a student arrested and detained by ICE for publicly reciting a poem. The brief, filed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, is in support of student José Omar Bello Reyes, arrested in May of this year.

“No one should go to jail for reading a poem. Yet it appears that ICE agents targeted Bello as a result of his poetry reading. When government officials wield their power to silence their critics and suppress lawful, protected speech, they undermine the core protection established by the First Amendment,” said Nora Benavidez, PEN America’s director of U.S. free expression programs. “In our filing today, we are calling on the Ninth Circuit to affirm José Bello’s political and artistic speech by fortifying his right to be free from government retaliation. Protest poetry has a long and proud tradition in the United States that must be vigorously defended in our courts of law.”

In its supporting brief (accessible here), PEN America urges the Ninth Circuit to grant his motion for release and affirm the constitutional guarantees afforded by the First Amendment. PEN America argues that “Mr. Bello enjoys a constitutional right to speak freely, to be free from retaliation for that speech, and to be free from efforts to restrain his ongoing speech on matters of public concern. Moreover, listeners and participants in the ongoing immigration debate have a concomitant right to receive his expressed viewpoints, without government officials deliberately interfering with the flow of that information with a censorial and retaliatory motive and effect. Despite these protections, ICE acted in retaliation for protected speech that was critical of them, striking at the very heart of the First Amendment.”

Belló Amicus by Latino Rebels on Scribd

ICE officers arrested Bakersfield College student Bello May 19 at his home in Bakersfield, California. Bello’s arrest occurred 36 hours after he appeared at a public forum held by the Kern County Board of Supervisors and recited his poem “Dear America,” which included criticisms of current federal immigration policy. After his arrest, the ACLU of Southern California filed a habeas petition on Bello’s behalf, arguing that his detention was retaliatory and violated his First Amendment rights. On July 16, a federal district court judge denied the petition but found the timing of the arrest to be “highly suggestive of retaliatory intent.” The case is now on appeal before the Ninth Circuit.

PEN America has previously expressed its concern about the enforcement action taken against Mr. Bello, as well as the broader issues around the erosion of free speech through ICE’s targeted enforcement actions. Most recently, we joined amicus briefs on behalf of detained Tennessee journalist Manuel Durán Ortega, who was arrested in April 2018 while reporting on a protest, and immigrants’ rights activist Ravi Ragbir, who was detained and targeted for deportation following his criticism of ICE at public rallies and on media outlets.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. More at