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Journalist jailed for asking police a question seeks Supreme Court review

Priscilla Villarreal

Saenz Photography

  • Laredo police put independent journalist Priscilla Villarreal in jail for routine journalism.
  • Police didn’t like her critical coverage — so they hunted for a law to silence her.
  • Priscilla: “Journalism isn’t a crime, but they treated me like a criminal just for asking questions.” 

LAREDO, Texas, April 23, 2024 — A journalist was thrown in a Texas jail for doing her job. Years later and still seeking justice, she is taking her case to the Supreme Court with the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

“If they can throw me in jail for asking a question, none of our free speech rights are safe,” said Priscilla Villarreal. “Our First Amendment rights don’t depend on our popularity with local politicians. My case is not just about me, but also the rights of every American.”

Priscilla, who The New York Times described as “arguably the most influential journalist in Laredo,” covers local crime, traffic, and other news for her 200,000 Facebook followers. Like all good journalists, she’s not shy about criticizing government officials. That’s why she’s been repeatedly targeted by them. The district attorney even took her behind closed doors to chastise her for her reporting. 

And in 2017, government officials went one alarming step further to bully her into silence — hunting for some law, any law, to arrest Priscilla. They found one.

Police dusted off a decades-old statute local officials had never used before to criminalize Priscilla’s journalism earlier that year about a high-profile suicide and a fatal car accident. For both stories, Priscilla received tips from private citizens and asked a Laredo police officer to verify those facts — something journalists do every day, and something the First Amendment squarely protects.

But Laredo law enforcement issued two warrants for her arrest under the statute, making it a felony to ask for non-public information from a government official if the person asking could benefit from that information. Laredo law enforcement claimed Priscilla benefitted from publishing the news to “gain popularity on Facebook.”

So Priscilla sued for violation of her First and Fourth Amendment rights, but the district court dismissed her claims. The court said that the officials were entitled to qualified immunity, which protects public officials from facing civil rights lawsuits unless the officials violated a “clearly established” constitutional right. 

After Priscilla appealed, a panel on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, reversing the dismissal and concluding that if Villarreal’s arrest “is not an obvious violation of the Constitution, it’s hard to imagine what would be.” 

But the entire Fifth Circuit decided to reconsider the ruling, and in a 9-7 decision, reversed course. In one of the four dissenting opinions, Judge James Ho lamented that the decision treated “the First Amendment as a second-class right.” And as Judge Graves explained in dissent, “the right to gather and report news could not be more firmly embedded in the Constitution.”

That’s why FIRE is asking the Supreme Court to hear Priscilla’s case and make clear that Americans can hold officials accountable when they violate First Amendment rights. 

“This is a case that should alarm every American,” said FIRE Senior Attorney JT Morris. “Every one of us has a constitutional right to question the government, but when government officials answer with arrest warrants, they must be held accountable.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.

Katie Kortepeter, Communications Campaign Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; 

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