A divided federal appeals court has refused to revive the lawsuit of a Texas-based online citizen journalist who says she was wrongfully arrested for seeking and obtaining nonpublic information from police in a case that drew attention from national media organizations and free-speech advocates.
A state judge dismissed the criminal case against Priscilla Villarreal — known online as La Gordiloca — saying the law used to arrest her in 2017 was unconstitutional. But Villarreal still wanted to sue officials for damages. She lost Jan. 23 in a 9-7 decision from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which saw strong dissents from a group of ideologically diverse judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents.
The majority held that the police officers and other officials Villarreal sued in Laredo and Webb County were entitled to legal immunity.
“Villarreal and others portray her as a martyr for the sake of journalism. That is inappropriate,” Judge Edith Jones wrote for the majority. “She could have followed Texas law, or challenged that law in court, before reporting nonpublic information from the backchannel source.”
The ruling included lengthy opinions covering more than 50 pages from three of the seven dissenting judges.
The law, according to court records, defined the criminal “misuse of official information” as using information that “has not been made public … with intent to obtain a benefit or with intent to harm or defraud another.” Authorities had argued that Villarreal could benefit from using the information — the identities of a person who killed himself and a family involved in a car accident — to gain fame on her Facebook page, Lagordiloca News LaredoTx.
“If the First Amendment means anything, surely it means that citizens have the right to question or criticize public officials without fear of imprisonment,” Judge James Ho, nominated to the court by former President Donald Trump, said in one dissent. Other dissenters included three more nominees of Republican presidents, and three nominated by Democrats.
Villarreal and an attorney who represented her said in an email that they would take the case to the Supreme Court.
“I’m disappointed,” Villarreal said, “but I’m going to keep up the fight for my rights and those of all Americans.”
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