By Julia Wallace
Laredo Morning Times
Originally published Dec. 17, 2017
The recent arrest of Priscilla Villarreal, better known as the Facebook star/citizen journalist Lagordiloca, on misuse of information charges is novel, and potentially a violation of her First Amendment rights, according to several media law experts.
Villarreal was charged Wednesday with two counts of misuse of information. Police said she received or solicited information from one of their own in order to obtain a benefit. The cop, a 19-year veteran, has been placed on administrative reassignment pending the outcome of internal and criminal investigations.
Villarreal regularly received information about arrests, traffic accidents and other law enforcement activity from the officer before it was disseminated through the normal channels of LPD’s office, according to the criminal complaint filed against Villarreal.
The complaint states that this gave her an advantage over “local official news media which in turn gained her popularity in ‘Facebook.'”
Gilbert Martinez, senior lecturer at Texas State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said this “benefit” of Lagordiloca’s Facebook popularity is not any different than the “benefit” traditional news media receive when they break a story, which could translate into advertising dollars.
And traditional news media should in fact be seeking inside sources such as Lagordiloca’s, Martinez said; she’s not doing anything differently than what a traditional news reporter might do.
Martinez noted that he has never heard of a criminal charge such as this before, and that it’s especially novel since it relates to newer territory — social media.
If this complaint were to stand in court, what does that suggest about the job of a traditional news reporter, Martinez wondered. Would reporters pause on breaking news to see if someone else had reported it first? He thinks it might cause a chilling effect.
The Webb County District Attorney’s Office has never prosecuted a misuse of information case involving a citizen, the office’s spokesperson said Friday. The office did not wish to offer any further comment on the case.
Attorney Joseph Larsen, a media law specialist with Sedgwick LLP out of Dallas, says the main issue with the charges against Lagordiloca is that the information she published was public.
He said that in order to charge her with misuse of information, the information in question must be classified as something that the public generally doesn’t have access to and is prohibited from disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act.
Radio dispatch logs and basic information about a traffic accident, an arrested person or a crime is public record. These records cannot be prohibited from being disclosed to citizens.
Law enforcement can withhold requested information if they are allowed to by the Attorney General’s Office, Larsen said. But withheld information is not the same as prohibited information.
Personal medical records, for example, are prohibited from being released because they are confidential. The type of information being supplied to Lagordiloca can’t even be withheld, Larsen said, and none of it is prohibited from disclosure.
He thinks police failed in filing charges in this case.
“It’s wrong. They have missed the boat,” Larsen said.
And beyond missing the criteria for prohibited disclosure, Larsen said LPD infringed on Lagordiloca’ First Amendment rights when they arrested her.
To characterize building her Facebook audience as a “benefit” in this case tramples on freedom of speech, Larsen said.
“You’re really straying into constitutional grounds here,” he said.
Investigator Joe E. Baeza, LPD spokesman, said because the information Lagordiloca received was obtained before it became publicly available, it was prohibited from disclosure.
And the Laredo Police Department protects free speech even when it’s against the department, Baeza said. Lagordiloca has every right and privilege to say anything she wishes, he said.
Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said she has not heard of a charge such as this having legal standing.
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas has a hotline that connects anyone with a question concerning open government laws to attorneys around the state. Attorney Margaret Maddox of Daughtry & Jordan, PC, was on call Friday. She said this case sounds highly unusual.
“My hunch is they don’t like her going on Facebook Live,” she said.
Larsen and Martinez alluded to the same idea.
Baeza refuted this, and said LPD has nothing against Lagordiloca.
“We have no personal vendetta or axe to grind with anybody,” he said.
Maddox said she hopes Lagordiloca has a good attorney.