Court Mulls Police Immunity in TX Journalist’s Case

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Priscilla Villarreal, who calls herself “Crazy Fat Lady,” is a familiar figure in Laredo, Tx. She practices a form of journalism she calls “News on the Move.” In 2017, police arrested her for committing two felonies. She was charged, essentially, with committing journalism: She got information from the government and published it, writes columnist George Will. Now she is suing the city, charging that her arrest was retaliatory. Her case involves “qualified immunity” for police. Villarreal has used her cellphone and her Facebook page, with 170,000 followers, to livestream and comment on crime scenes, traffic accidents, immigration enforcement and police behavior. Three years ago, she received information from a government source, including the name of a federal law enforcement officer who committed suicide — information the police were legally required to release  An arrest warrant was issued against her for violating the Texas Misuse of Official Information Statute.

Many states have laws that punish public officials for the unauthorized sharing of official information. The Supreme Court in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case affirmed the First Amendment right to publish information even if obtained from a government source who violated a duty or law in dispensing it. A judge dismissed Villarreal’s criminal case, holding the Texas statute unconstitutionally vague. When she sued Laredo and some officers over her arrest, a district court held that the officers were protected by qualified immunity. Villarreal is asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to hold that those responsible for her arrest either knew or are culpable for not knowing that the law she was accused of breaking by gathering news was unconstitutional. If the Fifth Circuit agrees to hear this case and rules for Villarreal and against qualified immunity for her persecutors, this will increase pressure on the Supreme Court to rethink such immunity.

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