May 24th, 2024 2 Minute Read Amicus Brief by Ilya Shapiro

Amicus Brief: Villarreal v. Alaniz

Priscilla Villarreal is a popular independent journalist in Laredo, Texas, who made a name for herself by providing quick, on-the-ground reporting on Facebook about local crime and misconduct by police and prosecutors. In 2017, Villarreal published stories about a public suicide and a fatal car accident. Both stories identified the victims based on information she obtained from third parties. Before publishing, Villarreal asked for confirmation of the victims’ identities from a Laredo Police Department (LPD) officer, who freely provided that confirmation.

Seven months later, Laredo police and prosecutors arrested Villarreal, alleging that she had violated a Texas statute that local authorities had never before enforced, Texas Penal Code Section 39.06(c). This felony statute states that “a person commits an offense, if, with the intent to obtain a benefit ..., he solicits or receives from a public servant information that: (1) the public servant has access to by means of his office or employment; and (2) has not been made public.” The police justified the arrest because (1) the victims’ identities were not “public information” and (2) Villarreal benefited from publishing the stories by gaining additional Facebook followers.

During the booking process, LPD officers photographed Villarreal in handcuffs, laughed at her, and mocked her. After posting bond, she filed for a writ of habeas corpus, which the local judge granted, finding the statute unconstitutionally vague. Villarreal then sued, alleging that the arrest was retaliation for her candid reporting on local officials, including the assistant prosecutor who participated in her arrest. The federal district court dismissed the suit on qualified-immunity grounds, which a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit reversed. The en banc Fifth Circuit then ruled against Villarreal in a heterodox 9–7 split (splitting both the court’s conservatives and its liberals), so she is petitioning for Supreme Court review.

The Manhattan Institute has joined Young America’s Foundation on a brief supporting Villarreal and arguing that, regardless of where anyone stands on the larger debate over qualified immunity, this doctrine was never intended to shield government officials who violate clear-cut First Amendment rights.

Ilya Shapiro is a senior fellow and director of Constitutional Studies at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.

Photo: Ajax9 / iStock / Getty Images Plus


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