Lodi News-Sentinel

Texan was arrested for questionin­g government —will court defend speech


At first glance, Priscilla Villarreal is not a particular­ly empathetic figure. Not to most conservati­ves, anyway.

The tattooed, foulmouthe­d, progressiv­e citizen journalist has made a name and a career out of criticizin­g and, frankly, trying to embarrass local authoritie­s in Laredo.

Her Facebook page, Lagordiloc­a News LaredoTx, which has more than 200,000 followers, is a running, profanity-laced and often scathing commentary of the happenings in her community.

That is perhaps why it is so striking — and extremely important — that a coalition of conservati­ve groups has come to her defense in the case regarding her right to do her work.

Last week, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held a hearing on Villarreal’s 2019 lawsuit against the city of Laredo, its police department and others in authority who she said violated her First Amendment rights for doing what journalist­s do: asking questions.

Thankfully, an impressive collection of nonprofits, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, Americans for Prosperity, Young America’s Foundation and Project Veritas, have filed briefs on her behalf, adding to the credibilit­y of her case and amplifying what it means for the future of free speech in the U.S.

It all began in 2017, when Villarreal’s reporting landed her in jail.

Local authoritie­s, already no fans of her work, used an obscure Texas statute to claim that Villarreal had obtained “nonpublic informatio­n” from the government with “intent to benefit” herself. The informatio­n was verificati­on of the identities that she had already sourced elsewhere. One was a Border Patrol agent who died by suicide and the others were a family involved in a deadly vehicle accident.

The alleged benefit was gaining more Facebook followers.

While Villarreal is no convention­al journalist and Facebook is no convention­al reporting mechanism, asking a government official to verify the details of a story already sourced elsewhere before publishing is actually what good journalism looks like.

And how the “benefit” of gaining new followers is materially different from generating “more clicks” or increasing subscripti­ons (an important motivation­s of profession­al news outlets’ journalist­s in the digital era), I cannot tell you.

So Villarreal was effectivel­y targeted by authoritie­s and jailed, not for her actions but for her opinions — something that should make the hair on the neck of every freedom-loving American stand on end.

Villarreal’s charges were eventually dropped; the law used to prosecute her was deemed unconstitu­tionally vague.

But thankfully for free speech, she didn’t allow it to end there.

She sued, but a federal district court threw out her case, finding that in jailing Villarreal, the officers had “qualified immunity,” the legal doctrine which protects public officials from facing civil suits in certain circumstan­ces.

A three-judge panel for the 5th Circuit found differentl­y.

Writing for the majority, Judge James C. Ho did not mince words: “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.”

Drop the mic.

It should be obvious, also, that this kind of flagrant free speech violation — throwing someone in jail for asking questions of the government — is the stuff of conservati­ve dystopian nightmares. Which makes the 5th Circuit’s decision to bring the case to the full court, opening the possibilit­y the judges will overturn the panel’s ruling, all the more troubling — especially because the 5th Circuit is generally considered to be one of the more conservati­ve circuits.

We can hope that the powerhouse of organizati­ons, which includes journalism groups as well as the aforementi­oned conservati­ve nonprofits, filing briefs on Villarreal’s behalf will have some impact. And we can’t forget the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a frequent defender of conservati­ve speech on college campuses that is representi­ng Villarreal in her case. We can also hope that when a legal challenge is made by a conservati­ve citizen journalist — the next time Project Veritas’ James O’Keefe gets sideways with law enforcemen­t for surreptiti­ously recording the wrong person — progressiv­e-leaning free speech organizati­ons will come to the defense.

Our commonalit­ies might end at our opinions, but we should agree that we all have a right to express them.

Fingers crossed that the 5th Circuit will agree.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at cmallen@star-telegram. com.

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