Friday, November 5, 2021

Citizen reporter wins First Amendment victory in the Fifth Circuit

 Priscilla Villarreal’s 2019 federal lawsuit came after she was charged two years earlier with two felony counts of misuse of information after she published the names of victims in a suicide and car crash on Facebook before they were made public, reported Courthouse News.

While Villarreal said she got the names from a Laredo police officer, Texas 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. The statute was later found to be unconstitutional, and the criminal charges were dropped.

Monday’s 2-1 ruling from the Fifth Circuit renews the lawsuit Villarreal filed against officials in Laredo over claims that she was wrongly arrested and retaliated against in violation of her constitutional rights to free speech and protection from unlawful seizure.

A federal judge had extended qualified immunity to the officials, but the New Orleans-based appellate court ruled that “obvious violations of the Constitution” are not shielded by immunity.

“Priscilla Villarreal was put in jail for asking a police officer a question,” U.S. Circuit Judge James Ho, a Donald Trump appointee, wrote for the majority. “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.”

At oral arguments in February, lawyers for the city said officials were simply enforcing a statute and that Villarreal should not have sought the names of the deceased before they were made public, or published them on Facebook.

But in finding for Villarreal, the panel concluded that it was “hard to imagine a more textbook violation of the First Amendment.”

U.S. Circuit Judge James Graves, a Barack Obama appointee, joined Ho in the majority. U.S. Circuit Judge Priscilla Owen, appointed by George W. Bush, dissented, but the court said her opinion would be filed at a later date.

Unsurprisingly, Villarreal took to her Facebook page to spread news of the ruling. She also seized the opportunity to savor her victory.

“I’m obviously very happy with this decision,” Villarreal told her followers. “To be honest with you, I’m just freaking out right now. We won guys; we won in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. You know what that is called? That’s called [expletive] karma.”

Villarreal was represented by Austin-based attorney J.T. Morris.

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