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Villarreal v. Alaniz

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  1. First Amendment

Court: U.S. Supreme Court

Date Filed: May 24, 2024

Background: In 2017, citizen journalist Priscilla Villarreal published details about a traffic accident and the suicide of a U.S. Border Patrol employee that she confirmed with the help of a source inside the Laredo Police Department. In response to her reporting, Laredo police officers detained Villarreal and charged her with violating a Texas law that makes it a felony to solicit nonpublic information from a public servant “with intent to obtain a benefit.”

A Texas judge found the statute unconstitutionally vague and dismissed the charges against Villarreal. Villarreal then sued the city of Laredo and the officers involved, arguing that the First Amendment protects her right to ask public officials for information and publish what they share.  

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed the lawsuit and granted the officers qualified immunity, which allows public officials to escape liability for constitutional violations if no prior case clearly established that their misconduct was illegal. But on appeal, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that the officers should have known their actions would violate the Constitution, reasoning that “[i]f the First Amendment means anything, it surely means that a citizen journalist has the right to ask a public official a question, without fear of being imprisoned.” 

The full Fifth Circuit later agreed to hear the case, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press joined a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the panel’s finding. The narrowly divided Fifth Circuit reversed the panel’s decision, concluding that a reasonable officer could have thought Villarreal’s arrest was lawful.

Villarreal petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

Our Position: The Supreme Court should agree to hear the case and reverse the Fifth Circuit’s ruling.

  • The Constitution’s most basic guarantee of a free press is the right to ask questions of government officials.
  • In the lower courts, qualified immunity systematically undermines the Constitution’s safeguard for a free press.

Quote: “If left in place, the decision below will chill the core press function of seeking information about the operations of government — while emboldening those officials who would seek to stop that work.”

Related: Reporters Committee Staff Attorney Grayson Clary previously highlighted the Fifth Circuit’s decision to grant the officers qualified immunity in The Nuance, a weekly newsletter produced by RCFP’s Technology and Press Freedom Project. “[Q]ualified immunity continues to threaten journalists’ ability to gather and report the news without fear of official retaliation,” Clary wrote.

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