She Was Jailed for Basic Journalism. A Federal Court Isn’t Sure if That’s Unconstitutional.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is most known for its work taking up controversial religious freedom cases. They famously defended Jack Phillips, a baker who was the subject of a high-profile suit after he declined to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. More recently, the organization argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of Lorie Smith, a website designer who preemptively challenged a Colorado law so that she would not have to design wedding sites for gay couples in violation of her religious beliefs.
They are not known for defending foul-mouthed, left-leaning journalists whose bread and butter consists sometimes of criticizing the police. They’re doing so anyway.
That journalist is Priscilla Villarreal, whose presence in Laredo, Texas, is associated with her profanity-laced commentary on law enforcement and who police jailed for the crime of asking the government questions, getting answers, and publishing those responses. That would appear to be a fairly cut-and-dry infringement on her First Amendment rights. Yet, it’s a question that has stumped the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in a case that could have far-reaching implications for anyone engaged in journalism, regardless of their political bent.
In 2017, Villarreal found herself in a jail cell after publishing two stories on her popular Facebook page, Lagordiloca, which as of this writing has attracted 202,000 followers. The first story pertained to a Border Patrol agent who committed suicide; the second revealed the identity of a family involved in a deadly vehicle accident. The stories were standard. But Villarreal had already drawn the ire of the local police department with her reporting, which has included, among other things, a livestream of an officer choking someone at a traffic stop and heavy criticism levied at a local prosecutor.
So the Laredo Police Department (LPD) moved to criminally charge her for that reporting, citing a Texas law that forbids obtaining “nonpublic information” from the government if the person doing so—in this case, Villarreal—has an “intent to benefit.” Richly ironic is that it was the LPD that gave her the information she requested. Even more absurd is that her alleged “intent to benefit” in seeking the information was getting more Facebook followers.
It’s a logic that would render any sort of journalistic activity illegal, when considering that all media outlets seek out nonpublic information (it’s called “reporting”) and do so to bring in revenue via subscriptions or social media followers (it’s called “a business”).
Which brings me back to ADF. “Ms. Villarreal’s right to gather and publish truthful news has been clearly established for decades,” ADF attorneys Rory T. Gray and John J. Bursch write in their amicus brief. “It was plainly unconstitutional for Defendants to attempt to bar Ms. Villarreal from
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