This Texan was arrested for questioning government. Will court defend her free speech? | Opinion

At first glance, Priscilla Villarreal is not a particularly empathetic figure. Not to most conservatives, anyway.

The tattooed, foul-mouthed, progressive citizen journalist has made a name and a career out of criticizing and, frankly, trying to embarrass local authorities in Laredo.

Her Facebook page, Lagordiloca News LaredoTx, which has more than 200,000 followers, is a running, profanity-laced and often scathing commentary of the happenings in her community.

Priscilla Villarreal
Priscilla Villarreal

That is perhaps why it is so striking — and extremely important — that a coalition of conservative groups has come to her defense in the case regarding her right to do her work.

This week, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held a hearing on Villarreal’s 2019 lawsuit against the city of Laredo, its police department and others in authority who she said violated her First Amendment rights for doing what journalists do: asking questions.

Thankfully, an impressive collection of nonprofits, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, Americans for Prosperity, Young America’s Foundation and Project Veritas, have filed briefs on her behalf, adding to the credibility of her case and amplifying what it means for the future of free speech in the U.S.

It all began in 2017, when Villarreal’s reporting landed her in jail.

Local authorities, already no fans of her work, used an obscure Texas statute to claim that Villarreal had obtained “nonpublic information” from the government with “intent to benefit” herself.

The information was verification of the identities that she had already sourced elsewhere. One was a Border Patrol agent who died by suicide and the others were a family involved in a deadly vehicle accident.

The alleged benefit was gaining more Facebook followers.

While Villarreal is no conventional journalist and Facebook is no conventional reporting mechanism, asking a government official to verify the details of a story already sourced elsewhere before publishing is actually what good journalism looks like.

And how the “benefit” of gaining new followers is materially different from generating “more clicks” or increasing subscriptions (an important motivations of professional news outlets’ journalists in the digital era), I cannot tell you.

So Villarreal was effectively targeted by authorities and jailed, not for her actions but for her opinions — something that should make the hair on the neck of every freedom-loving American stand on end.

Villarreal’s charges were eventually dropped; the law used to prosecute her was deemed unconstitutionally vague.

But thankfully for free speech, she didn’t allow it to end there.

She sued, but a federal district court threw out her case, finding that in jailing Villarreal, the officers had “qualified immunity,” the legal doctrine which protects public officials from facing civil suits in certain circumstances.

A three-judge panel for the 5th Circuit found differently.

Writing for the majority, Judge James C. Ho did not mince words: “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.”

Drop the mic.

It should be obvious, also, that this kind of flagrant free speech violation — throwing someone in jail for asking questions of the government — is the stuff of conservative dystopian nightmares.

Which makes the 5th Circuit’s decision to bring the case to the full court, opening the possibility the judges will overturn the panel’s ruling, all the more troubling — especially because the 5th Circuit is generally considered to be one of the more conservative circuits.

We can hope that the powerhouse of organizations, which includes journalism groups as well as the aforementioned conservative nonprofits, filing briefs on Villarreal’s behalf will have some impact. And we can’t forget the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a frequent defender of conservative speech on college campuses that is representing Villarreal in her case.

We can also hope that when a legal challenge is made by a conservative citizen journalist — the next time Project Veritas’ James O’Keefe gets sideways with law enforcement for surreptitiously recording the wrong person — progressive-leaning free speech organizations will come to the defense.

Our commonalities might end at our opinions, but we should agree that we all have a right to express them.

Fingers crossed that the 5th Circuit will agree.