The arrest of a journalist in the United States for asking questions is surprising. In Laredo, Texas, Priscilla Villarreal was arrested for reporting the identity of a Border Patrol agent who killed himself and the last name of a family involved in a fatal traffic accident after confirming both identities with an officer in the Laredo Police Department. She was charged with violating an obscure Texas law by allegedly soliciting “nonpublic information” with the intent to benefit her Facebook followers. The criminal investigation, which saw Villarreal abused the legal system, raised the question of what qualifies as journalism and if those who adhere to a more traditional approach are entitled to different rights.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that officers did not violate the Constitution when they charged Villarreal, sparking a contentious debate over the definition of journalism and the rights of journalists. Despite the decision, it is unclear whether the police would have arrested her had she been employed by a traditional publication, as her unfiltered and raw approach on her Facebook page, Lagordiloca, is considered unconventional. The dissenting judges argue that the officers leveraged the law illegally to retaliate against her and that the majority’s ruling disproportionally holds powerful people to a lower standard than the least powerful.
The ruling in Villarreal’s case has been criticized for enabling police and prosecutors to abuse their power and silence speech they dislike. Despite her controversial approach, Villarreal has united supporters from across the political spectrum, who have argued that the First Amendment protects citizens’ right to question and criticize public officials without fear of imprisonment. Regardless of one’s opinion of Villarreal, it is clear that law enforcement’s actions to silence her have only expanded her platform, leading Villarreal to express her intent to take her case to the Supreme Court.