After a series of court reversals, Laredo-based independent journalist Priscilla Villarreal is seeking to have her case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court following her arrest by Laredo law enforcement.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression—which is representing Villarreal in her SCOTUS appeal—police hunted her into silence in April of 2017 because they opposed her journalism, which was often critical of local officials.

FIRE also argued that police “dusted off” old statutes never before used against journalists to criminalize her work. After receiving tips from private citizens and asking a Laredo police officer to verify facts about a high-profile suicide and fatal car accident, two warrants were issued for her arrest.

The statute, FIRE states, makes it a felony to ask government officials for nonpublic information if the requester would benefit from the information provided. Law enforcement argued that Villarreal would benefit by gaining popularity on social media for publishing the story.

Villarreal sued in May 2019 for violating her First and Fourth Amendment rights. Her claims were dismissed by a district court, which said that government officials were protected by qualified immunity.

However, while a panel of judges from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with her and said that if this “is not an obvious violation of the Constitution, it’s hard to imagine what would be,” it was reversed and struck down again by a full panel of judges in a 9-7 decision.

The New York Times described Villarreal, focusing primarily on covering traffic, local crime, and corruption for her 200,000 Facebook followers, as “arguably the most influential journalist in Laredo.”

Her criticism of government officials is part of what makes her an effective journalist, FIRE argues. “That’s why she’s been repeatedly targeted by them. The district attorney even took her behind closed doors to chastise her for her reporting.”

“This is a case that should alarm every American,” said FIRE Senior Attorney JT Morris. “Every one of us has a constitutional right to question the government, but when government officials answer with arrest warrants, they must be held accountable.”

Will Biagini

Will was born in Louisiana and raised in a military family. He currently serves as a journalist with Texas Scorecard. Previously, he was a senior correspondent for Campus Reform.