Monday, October 31, 2022

Fifth Circuit to Reconsider Whether Officers are Immune for Arresting Journalist for, well, Doing Journalism

The full Fifth Circuit on Friday agreed to rehear a ruling by a three-judge panel that rejected qualified immunity for officers enforcing a Texas law that criminalizes solicitation of information from a public servant with intent "to obtain a benefit." The full court also vacated the panel ruling.

In other words, it's now not clearly unconstitutional to arrest and charge a person for doing journalism in the Fifth Circuit.

The full court's move is just the latest in this long-running case. It started when Priscilla Villarreal, a Facebook journalist, posted a story about a man who committed suicide and another story with the last name of a family involved in a fatal car accident. Villarreal confirmed the names with local authorities. After she posted, she was arrested.

Authorities charged Villarreal with violating Texas law that criminalizes the solicitation of non-public information from a public servant with intent "to obtain a benefit." (Villarreal's "benefit" was gaining more Facebook followers.) The state trial court quite predictably tossed the case, ruling that the Texas law was unconstitutionally vague.

Villarreal then sued authorities in federal court for various violations of her constitutional rights, including First Amendment rights. The district court dismissed the case, but a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit reversed. Noting that "[i]t is not a crime to be a journalist," the court said that authorities violated Villarreal's clearly established constitutional rights.

Then on Friday the full Fifth Circuit vacated the panel ruling and agreed to rehear the case. The Friday ruling included no opinions, so we don't really know where the Fifth Circuit's ultimately going with this.

But in the meantime, if you're a journalist in Texas, beware. You apparently have no clearly established constitutional right to do your job.

Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink


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