Laredo, TX — If you report a story before the police department is scheduled to release it to local media, you can and will be arrested and charged with a felony. For those that seek proof that alternative media is under attack, one needn’t look any further than the case of Priscilla Villarreal.
Villarreal runs an alternative media platform out of Laredo and operates it on a news page on Facebook called LaGordiloca. Earlier this month, Villarreal was arrested and charged with two counts of “misuse of official information,” a third-degree felony for operating that page.
As Texas Monthly reports, Villarreal, 32, turned herself in to Laredo police on December 13 after being charged with two felony counts of “misuse of official information,” stemming from her reporting on a Border Patrol agent’s suicide last April. Villarreal denies that she did anything illegal, and her attorney says the police department is simply trying to silence her because it does not like the way she reports. She often swears while she narrates her live-streamed footage, and she sometimes captures graphic images. She has been known to verbally spar with police officers in public.
Villarreal did nothing illegal. She stole no secrets, was not some NSA whistleblower and the information she reported did not cause anyone harm nor place anyone in danger. Villarreal, who runs the Facebook page LaGordiloca—with nearly 84,000 fans—simply published the same information the police department published publicly—only before they did.
Yes, that is all she did and the police actually admit this is all she did.
“(Villarreal’s) access to this information and releasing it on ‘Lagordiloca News Laredo Tx’ before the official release by the Laredo Police Department Public Information Officer placed her ‘Facebook’ page ahead of the local official news media which in turn gained her popularity in ‘Facebook,'” states the criminal complaint filed against Villarreal.
According to the Laredo Morning Times, the Laredo police department began investigating the case July 10, when its Office of Professional Standards received information stating that Goodman had been communicating with Villarreal, the affidavit states. The document says that some of the information published by Villarreal on her Facebook page was not available to anyone outside of law enforcement.
Investigators obtained subpoenas for Goodman’s and Villarreal’s phone records. Police said they discovered that the two “contacted each other on a regular basis and on specific dates that coincide with law enforcement activities,” according to the Times.
In what appears to be an extreme case of butthurt, the LPD seemingly became enraged at the fact that someone would beat them to a press release, so they acted. Villarreal, after receiving information, would go live on Facebook to report details of an incident that were not public at the time, the arrest affidavit states.
To reiterate, the police department would later release this exact information to the ‘official’ local media who would then report it. However, because Villarreal was first, she is now facing felony charges.
Naturally, Villarreal’s case is garnering the attention of those worried about the implications of First Amendment rights in her case, and it should. This independent journalist is the first person in the history of Webb County to be facing misuse of information charges, according to the paper.
Villarreal, who turned herself in voluntarily last Wednesday, says that the department is trying to silence her for criticizing its officers and beating the public relations department to the punch.
“All this is just a personal vendetta,” she told The Washington Post on Friday. “And I have all the proof I need to prove it.”
According to the Post, department spokesman Joe Baeza didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment early Friday. In comments to the Morning Times this week, he said: “We have no personal vendetta or ax to grind with anybody.”
However, if you look closely at the facts of the case, it becomes hard to believe Mr. Baeza.
As Reason noted, Texas law says a person can be guilty of misuse of official information if they solicit or receive information from a public servant, the official “has access to [that information] by means of his office or employment,” the info “has not been made public” yet, and the person receiving it does so “with intent to obtain a benefit or with intent to harm or defraud another” (emphasis mine). Villarreal was clearly not trying to harm or defraud anyone by publishing local news to LaGordiloca, so police must show that she did so “with intent to obtain a benefit” in order to make the misuse-of-information charge stick.
The “intent to obtain a benefit” part of the law is why the LPD is claiming Villarreal released the information to garner Facebook likes—a stretch, indeed—especially considering all the news she’s put out in the past.
“I strongly believe that censorship only hinders the advancement of a society,” writes Villarreal on a GoFundMe page she started since the arrest to pay for legal help. “I strongly believe in freedom of information and freedom of speech. I am in NO way a scholar of a higher learning institute but I am in my own way a graduate of the school of life most importantly the curriculum of what is right and what is wrong. … I continue to be adamant that transparency in the political and law enforcement theater is the base for trust.”
Sergio Lozano, Villarreal’s attorney, says that he’s confident the state will be exposed as the aggressor in this case and noted, “We anxiously await for the case to go to court for her name to be cleared.”
In the land of the free, reporting on information before obtaining permission from armed agents of the state can result in your persecution and subsequent loss of freedom. Hopefully, for the sake of the freedom of the press, Villarreal’s case garners enough attention to expose the LPD as the tyrants they are and this face of modern media is allowed to walk free.