Americans shouldn’t be jailed for peaceably asking public officials a question. But that is what officials in Laredo, Texas did to Priscilla Villarreal. FIRE is stepping in to defend Priscilla’s First Amendment rights and the rights of all Americans to ask public servants for information and to ensure public officials who violate essential First Amendment rights are held accountable.
Priscilla is a citizen journalist who has gained a loyal following on social media because of her unfiltered reporting on local matters, including police and government conduct (and misconduct). Desperate to silence her, local officials dug up a statute—never used by local authorities in the law’s 23-year history—to arrest Priscilla for asking a police officer to confirm information she had already received from other sources.
Asking public servants for information is something thousands of journalists and other citizens do every day. And it is something the First Amendment obviously protects, as decisions from the Supreme Court make clear. But Laredo tried to criminalize Villarreal’s exercise of this essential First Amendment right.
After Priscilla sued, the police officers and district attorneys who orchestrated her arrest raised the defense of qualified immunity, a doctrine that shields government officials from accountability when they violate constitutional rights. The district court dismissed the case, finding defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. On August 12, 2022, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed and denied qualified immunity to Laredo’s officers, finding the arrest was an obvious constitutional violation. Judge James Ho, writing for the majority, succinctly explained, “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.”
The Fifth Circuit, at the government officials’ request, elected to rehear the case en banc, which vacated the original panel’s opinion and meant all 16 then-active judges would consider Priscilla’s constitutional claims. On January 25, 2023, FIRE argued the case in New Orleans on Priscilla's behalf. Almost a year later, the Fifth Circuit granted the government officials qualified immunity in a splintered 9-7 decision, with four separate dissenting opinions. FIRE is in the process of seeking review of the Fifth Circuit’s decision by the Supreme Court of the United States.
Priscilla is standing up for all citizens who want to exercise their First Amendment right to seek information from government officials and contribute to a well-informed public, free from fear that officials will abuse the laws to try to silence their detractors.