U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Citizen journalist arrested for publishing information before local police

Incident Details

Date of Incident
December 13, 2017
Laredo, Texas
Case number
Case Status
Type of case

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Arresting Authority
Laredo Police Department
Unnecessary use of force?

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
January 23, 2024 - Update

Divided federal appeals court won’t revive Texas journalist’s lawsuit

A federal appeals court on Jan. 23, 2024, upheld the dismissal of citizen journalist Priscilla Villarreal’s lawsuit against officials from the City of Laredo, Texas, and Webb County stemming from her arrest in December 2017.

Villarreal was charged with two felony counts of “misuse of official information” after she publicized information about the identities of a man who died by suicide and a car accident victim before police released them through official channels.

The charges were dismissed in March 2019 when a judge ruled that the statute — which had never been successfully prosecuted — was unconstitutionally vague. In April 2019, Villarreal filed her lawsuit against 10 officials from the city and county alleging violations of her First and Fourth Amendment rights.

After a district court judge dismissed her claims, a panel of three judges with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals initially ruled in her favor in November 2021. The court later vacated that ruling in favor of a full, en banc, panel hearing.

In the 5th Circuit’s subsequent decision, it ruled 9-7 that the city officials and police were entitled to qualified immunity, dismissing Villarreal’s allegations of retaliation.

“Villarreal and others portray her as a martyr for the sake of journalism. That is inappropriate,” Judge Edith H. Jones wrote for the majority. “She could have followed Texas law, or challenged that law in court, before reporting nonpublic information from the backchannel source.”

In four lengthy dissents, circuit judges objected to the majority’s characterization of Villarreal and her work as a citizen journalist and expressed concerns over the impact the decision may have for freedom of the press.

“There is simply no way such freedom can meaningfully exist unless journalists are allowed to seek non-public information from the government,” Judge James Graves Jr. wrote in his dissent. “Today’s majority opinion overlooks that protection all too cavalierly.”

Neither Villarreal nor her attorney responded to requests for comment. In a post on Facebook, Villarreal wrote that she wasn’t surprised by the majority opinion and that she plans to appeal her case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“[T]hey violated constitutional rights and someone needed to set these people straight,” Villarreal wrote. “I want to be the one that makes that change for the next person.”

November 1, 2021 - Update

Court of Appeals overturns ruling dismissing citizen journalist’s lawsuit

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.

April 8, 2019 - Update

Citizen journalist sues for damages following alleged unlawful 2017 arrest

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.

March 28, 2018 - Update

Charges dismissed

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.

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 after a warrant was issued for her arrest, 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].