A federal appeals court has ruled that it is perfectly clear under the U.S. Constitution that journalists cannot be jailed for asking officials questions.
And that, the 2-1 majority in the case brought by Priscilla Villarreal said, is what happened to her.
The decision revived the woman’s lawsuit against Laredo, Webb County and others.
“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. yet that is exactly what happened here: Priscilla Villarreal was put in jail for asking a police officer a question,” the opinion said.
The background is that she is a “citizen journalist” and reports on events in Laredo on social media. Frequently, she’s irritated local police with her coverage and comments, so there was little love in the establishment for her work.
Then one incident developed in which she published the names of people involved in a car accident – before the victims’ identities had formally been released by authorities.
That violated a state law that later was found unconstitutional, but at the time she was jailed for her offense.
“If that is not an obvious violation of the Constitution, it’s hard to imagine what would be. And as the Supreme Court has repeatedly held, public officials are not entitled to qualified immunity for obvious violations of the Constitution,” said the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
She had sued after her arrest, but a lower court had thrown it out. It’s now been reinstated.
The court commented on her blunt reporting: “Her reporting frequently includes colorful – and often unfiltered – commentary,” the judges noted.
A report at Courthouse News explained Villarreal “has reported on everything from local crime to public corruption by officials in the border city of Laredo under the name La Gordiloca.”
The complications with her work surfaced when she was reporting on a suicide, and a car crash. She got into trouble because state law “makes it a Class 3 felony to seek and receive information from an official that has not yet been made available to the public.”
She had obtained the names, then asked a police officer to confirm them. He did.
That was the law later found unconstitutional and dropped.
The effect of the appeals court decision is that her claims of wrongful arrest and retaliation now have been resurrected.
The ruling came from U.S. Circuit Judge James Ho, a Donald Trump appointee.
U.S. Circuit Judge James Graves, a Barack Obama appointee, joined Ho in the majority.
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