Citizen journalist arrested for publishing information before local police

December 13, 2017

Citizen journalist Priscilla Villarreal was arrested by the Laredo Police Department and charged with two felony counts of “misuse of official information” on Dec. 13, 2017.

Villarreal — an independent journalist based in Laredo, Texas, who is often known by her nickname “La Gordiloca” — published the name of a Border Patrol agent who died by suicide on her Facebook page in April, before the Laredo Police Department’s official release about the incident.

The Laredo Morning Times reported on Dec. 15 that a veteran patrol officer, Barbara J. Goodman, provided the name of the agent to Villarreal, but the journalist denies Goodman was her source. Investigators obtained subpoenas for the phone records of both Villarreal and Goodman.

“Misuse of official information” charges in Texas require that a person obtain nonpublic information from a public official and disseminate it with the intention of benefiting or harming another entity. Authorities argued in the criminal complaint filed against Villarreal that she benefited from publishing the agent’s name by gaining Facebook followers.

Texas Monthly reported that the complaint reads, “Villarreal’s access to this information and releasing it on ‘Lagordiloca News Laredo Tx,’ before the official release by the Laredo Police Department Public Information Officer placed her ‘Facebook’ page ahead of the local official news media which in turn gained her popularity in Facebook.”

According to The Washington Post, Villarreal turned herself in voluntarily, but believes she is innocent of wrongdoing and that the police are attempting to silence her reporting.

Villarreal and her legal representation were not immediately available for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

March 28, 2018 Update

A Texas state district judge dismissed the charges against Villarreal, the San Antonio Express-News reports. Judge Monica Notzon ruled that the statute under which she was charged — which criminalizes the "misuse of official information" — was unconstitutionally vague.

Isido Alaniz, the district attorney who signed off on Villarreal's arrest, said that he does not plan to appeal the judge's ruling.

April 8, 2019 Update

On April 8, 2019, Priscilla Villarreal filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of Texas against 10 officials from the city of Laredo and Webb County, including city police officials, saying she was wrongfully arrested and that her First Amendment rights were violated. Her petition states that there was no probable cause, and the statute under which she was detained would not have been used by any “reasonable official.”

The Laredo Morning Times reported that the petition states Villarreal was surrounded by police officers and employees after her arrest who were “laughing at Villarreal, taking pictures of her in handcuffs with their cellphones, and otherwise showing their animus." Thus, Villarreal is seeking compensation for the physical, mental, emotional and financial hardship she says she suffered during the case. According to the Morning Times, “Villarreal is seeking an entry of judgment holding the defendants liable to their alleged unlawful conduct; actual, compensatory and punitive damages; injunctive relief; declaratory judgment; and attorney fees.”

In April, May and June, defendants filed separate motions for the dismissal of the case, but on Sept. 10, U.S. Federal Magistrate Judge John A. Kazen denied those motions. The case is ongoing and Villarreal claims that not only was she arrested under a “vague” law, it was also “selectively enforced” and has not been used in the past.

November 1, 2021 Update

On Nov. 1, 2021, a federal court of appeals reversed a Texas district court’s ruling that dismissed citizen journalist Priscilla Villarreal’s lawsuit against officials from the City of Laredo and Webb County stemming from her December 2017 arrest.

Villarreal had filed a civil lawsuit in April 2019 and the defendants filed a motion to dismiss on June 14 on the grounds of qualified immunity and failure to state a claim. In May 2020, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Kazen granted the motion and dismissed all claims correspondingly, according to filings reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Villarreal appealed the dismissal of her claims on May 21. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of her First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims and her civil conspiracy claims on Nov. 1, 2021, but not her municipal liability claims against the City of Laredo.

In the Court of Appeals’ opinion, Circuit Judge James Ho wrote that the lower court had “erred” in dismissing Villarreal’s claims on the grounds of qualified immunity.

“If the First Amendment means anything, it surely means that a citizen journalist has the right to ask a public official a question, without fear of being imprisoned. Yet that is exactly what happened here: Priscilla Villarreal was put in jail for asking a police officer a question,” Ho wrote.

“It is not a crime to be a journalist. As the Institute for Justice rightly observes, the position urged by the City of Laredo in this case is ‘dangerous to a free society,’ for ‘[it] assumes that the government can choose proper and improper channels for newsgathering—indeed, that the government can decide what is and is not newsworthy.’”

Ho remanded the case back to the District Court for the Southern District of Texas for further proceedings consistent with the Court of Appeals’ decision.

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