The rise of the “citizen journalist”

The 5th Circuit characterized Priscilla Villarreal as a “citizen journalist” because she frequently posted about local news items on her Facebook page where she had over 120,000 followers.  It turns out, however, that her status as a citizen journalist was not critical to the outcome of her suit against the City of Laredo and numerous local officials.  The 5th Circuit refused to dismiss the case, noting that Ms. Villarreal had plausibly alleged that her First Amendment rights had been infringed, and that she had been unconstitutionally “seized” in violation of the 4th Amendment. On top of that, the court held that she alleged a plausible claim of “selective enforcement” of a Penal Code statute in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

What was this about?  It’s safe to say that Ms. Villarreal was not well liked among the officers in the local police department or the district attorneys’ office. They were offended by some of her accusations of wrongdoing, corruption, or incompetence.  Ultimately they obtained a warrant from a state magistrate judge and arrested her, charging her with violating Texas Penal Code 39.06(c). 

That section of the Code makes it a crime to (1) “solicit” from a (2) “public servant” (3) information that the public servant has access to because of the public servant’s position but  has not been made public for (4) the purpose of obtaining a benefit.  The specifics in this case were that Ms. Villarreal had contacted a public servant (police officer)  to confirm what she had heard elsewhere. In one instance this involved the suicide of a Border Patrol agent, and in the other it was about the identity of a family involved in a fatal car accident. Neither the name of the BP agent, nor the identity of the family had been made public.  The city charged Ms. Villarreal with doing this for the purpose of “obtaining a benefit,” specifically, scooping traditional news outlets and thus enhancing her status on  Facebook. 

The 5th Circuit noted that “benefit” in the state statute was defined as “economic gain or advantage.”  Ms. Villarreal did not seek to obtain an economic gain or benefit. The court had a very simple way of characterizing what happened here:

Priscilla Villarreal was put in jail for asking a police officer a question.  If that is not an obvious violation of the  Constitution, it’s hard to imagine what would be. 

It’s Villarreal v. City of Laredo, decided by the 5th Circuit on August 12, 2022. It’s cited at 2022 WL 3334699.


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Tomorrow: wannabe salutatorian sues….