Protect the rights of the first amendment of the blogger arrested for reporting – Houston Chronicle | Team Cansler

Scott Tidwell, a former Winkler County attorney, abused his position to gain access to confidential complaints about a county hospital to get revenge on two nurses who filed the complaints.

Daniel Reyna, a former Los Fresnos city manager, used his position to falsify competing bids for city projects, appearing to award the lowest bid to a contractor while pocketing a portion of the funds for himself.

Priscilla Villarreal, an independent local blogger, confirmed with a Laredo police officer public information about a border guard who died by suicide and posted it on her Facebook page.

All three of those individuals were arrested and charged under the same obscure Texas law: Abusing public information with intent to gain an undeserved advantage, a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison. Tidwell and Reyna were corrupt officials who abused their authority. Villarreal is a journalist who performs the core function of her job: sharing newsworthy information with the public.

For several years, Villarreal has been involved in a lawsuit that raises fundamental questions about this law and whether journalists in Texas have First Amendment protections. Any law that can be used to arrest a journalist for informing the public could set a chilling precedent. The fact that Villarreal was arrested by the Laredo Police Department, the same agency that allegedly provided her with illegal information, only adds to the absurdity of the law.

Villarreal’s news-gathering tactics are certainly unorthodox. Calling herself “Lagordiloca” – the fat mad lady – she thrives as a nighttime news dog, reporting and posting into the wee hours of the morning. She has amassed 200,000 followers on Facebook by live streaming from the scene of police raids, car crashes and shootings, sharing raw and sometimes gruesome images that mainstream news outlets would hesitate to publish. As a citizen journalist, Villarreal isn’t bound by the same institutional ethical standards as most reporters, but her candid work nonetheless offers a valuable perspective on crime in Laredo. She works part-time overseeing a crew that cleans up tractor and trailer accident sites, and is otherwise paid mostly in free food from local restaurants, which she posts about on her public-facing page, according to a Texas Monthly profile.

In April 2017, Villarreal published the story about a border guard who died by suicide. Like any hard-working reporter, she first confirmed the agent’s name with the Public Information Officer at the Laredo Police Department before posting it on her Facebook page. Eight months later, Villarreal was booked and charged with allegedly reporting information that had not yet been made public.

Villarreal’s arrest attracted national attention because of the constitutional concerns it raised. The US Supreme Court has consistently held that the First Amendment protects the right to release information from government sources, even when the source of that information violates confidentiality—as former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg famously did with the Pentagon Papers in 1971 the spread. The arrest of a local blogger for publishing the name of a deceased public worker certainly appears at first glance to be a blatant breach of that established precedent.

A Texas state court judge agreed, throwing out the charges against Villarreal in 2018, calling the law “unconstitutionally vague.” However, when Villarreal tried to sue the city of Laredo in federal court, a district court judge ruled that the officials and prosecutors were entitled to qualified immunity – a legal principle that protects government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations.

The US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals initially overturned this ruling and reinstated Villarreal’s lawsuit with a 2-1 verdict. Judge James Ho, appointed by Republican President Donald Trump, wrote for the majority opinion, “Any reasonable police officer should realize that jailing a journalist for asking a question violates the First Amendment.”

But Villarreal’s path to redemption hit another snag a few weeks ago. On October 28, the full Fifth Circuit said it would reconsider the 2-1 decision “en banc” – meaning the full 26-judge panel of the court will consider whether Villarreal information “with intent to profit.” ‘ and as such has obtained whether she has the right to sue the city of Laredo.

While we hope that the full court will uphold its original decision and allow Villarreal’s lawsuit, the dissent from Chief US Circus Judge Priscilla Richman, who was on the panel for that decision, raises some doubts that the majority view will stand.

Richman wrote that because Villarreal admitted she sometimes receives free meals from readers and fees for promoting local businesses, “it would have been reasonable for a law enforcement official to believe that she intended to gain at least some economic advantage” if they published the name of the company border guards. Richman added that Texas law does not specifically exclude journalists.

We agree with her on the latter point. The law as written does not belong in the books and should be spelled out by legislators to protect the right of journalists to report public information.

Arming a vaguely written law to arrest a journalist sets a chilling precedent. For Villarreal, the “undeserved benefit” she received for her hard work was more Facebook followers. We shouldn’t live in a state where journalists could face this kind of harassment or retaliation from law enforcement agencies who don’t like the way a story is being reported. Who says the next enterprising reporter couldn’t be arrested for gaining Twitter followers? Or more page views? Or digital subscribers for your news organization?

Providing sunlight and transparency to city government is not a “benefit”; it is one of our fundamental constitutional principles. The state of Texas should ensure our laws reflect this.

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