February 6, 2023

An online Texas citizen journalist asked federal appeals court judges on Wednesday to reinstate their lawsuit against agencies who arrested her for seeking and obtaining nonpublic information from police — a case that has drawn the attention of national media organizations and free speech advocates has pulled.

A state judge dismissed Priscilla Villarreal’s criminal case in 2018, saying the law used to arrest her in 2017 was found to be unconstitutionally vague, according to court documents.

Villarreal, known online as “La Gordiloca,” then filed a lawsuit against the city of Laredo, Webb County and the police officers and prosecutors involved in her arrest. She said she was entitled to damages because she should never have been arrested for posting information on her Facebook page,” Lagordiloca told News LaredoTx. “

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“I had to point out that being arrested for my freedom of speech and freedom of the press is not right,” Villarreal said outside the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals building, where the court’s 16 serving judges heard their arguments on Wednesday.

Among those siding with her in the case are the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists.

“If the First Amendment stands for anything, the fundamental truth is that the people and the press, on behalf of the people, must be able to question government officials without fear of harassment, prosecution or imprisonment,” reads a Brief filed with Texas news outlets and media organizations.

A case against the charges against citizen journalist Priscilla Villareal (left) goes before a federal appeals court.
(AP Photo/Kevin McGill)

In a competing brief, the state of Texas says the issues are more nuanced and dismisses the notion that the woman known as La Gordiloca was arrested simply for asking a question.

Villarreal has not shown that the officers who had her arrested knew there was no probable cause, the Texas Brief said. It also said a judge issued the warrant and “officials reasonably relied on the neutral judge’s conclusion that there was probable cause to arrest Villarreal for breaking a notional statute.”

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Some of the judges hearing the case on Wednesday asked questions on the point.

“Wouldn’t judges know more than cops?” Judge Catharina Haynes asked Villarreal’s attorney JT Morris, who said police and prosecutors had no likely reason to investigate the warrant or even seek it.

According to court documents, the law defines criminal “misuse of official information” as the use of information that “has not been made public…with intent to gain advantage or with intent to harm or defraud others.” Authorities had argued that Villarreal could benefit from using the information – the identity of a person who killed himself and a family involved in a car accident – to gain notoriety on her Facebook page.

A 5th Circuit panel revived Villarreal’s lawsuit in a 2-1 decision in November 2021. However, the full court overturned that decision and decided to grant Wednesday’s hearing before all 16 active judges. In that decision, Judge James Ho wrote that Villarreal’s arrest was “a manifest violation of the Constitution”.

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Ho questioned Texas and Laredo attorneys Wednesday about scenarios in which soliciting information from officials may be criminalized.

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