Lagordiloca’s Arrest Raises Constitutional Concerns
The popular Laredo citizen journalist faces two felony counts of misuse of official information. But media law experts question if she’s done anything wrong.
Priscilla Villarreal has emerged as one of the most popular—and controversial—news sources in Laredo. She live-broadcasts raw, unedited footage to an audience of 82,000 followers on her public Facebook page. She’s known as Lagordiloca, the nightcrawler of Laredo, cruising the city in search of accidents and crime scenes to turn into news. But last week, Lagordiloca’s arrest became the subject of the news.
Villarreal, 32, surrendered 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. (Texas Monthly wrote about Villarreal at length in the January issue.)
All of which has also made her a social media star in Laredo, and Lagordiloca’s arrest became big news in the border city last week. After she was notified that police had issued a warrant for her arrest, she announced on Facebook that she planned to turn herself in at the Laredo Police Department the following day. “The media was already there,” she told Texas Monthly. “As I’m walking inside, it looks like, excuse my language, a fucking circus.” Villarreal said officers were taking pictures and video of her arrest. “What can I say, they were probably happy I was getting arrested,” she said.
An article about Lagordiloca’s arrest was the most popular story on the Laredo Morning Times‘s website for several days, and the newspaper ran a longer, follow-up story on the front page of its Sunday edition. Local television newscasts covered the story, and it even got picked up by the San Antonio Express-News. Villarreal said she was inundated with messages of support, as well as messages celebrating her arrest.
But beyond that spectacle, Villarreal’s case also raises larger questions about free speech and press freedoms. Police allege that Villarreal solicited information—the identity of a Border Patrol agent who committed suicide—from police officer Barbara Goodman before the department officially released that information through its public information office. “Information provided by Officer Goodman pertaining to the case in question was used by Priscilla Villarreal in her Facebook page ‘Lagordiloca News Laredo TX,’ immediately notifying her followers of the incident,” states the criminal complaint filed against Villarreal. “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.”
According to the Texas Penal Code, a person can be charged for misuse of official information if they solicit or receive information that has not been made public “with intent to obtain a benefit or with intent to harm or defraud another.” The warrant does not seem to allege Villarreal harmed or defrauded anyone, and it’s unclear if the Laredo police have evidence that Villarreal benefited illegally from the information she received and published beyond her “gaining popularity” on Facebook. (The Laredo Police Department has not responded to multiple requests for comment from Texas Monthly.)
One could argue that her Facebook page is a news outlet—it certainly functions as such to most of her 82,000 followers—and thus benefits from receiving this kind of information the same way as all established news organizations. Villarreal’s attorney, Sergio Lozano, said the charges against his client should alarm traditional news outlets. “In my opinion, this is the government’s attempt to silence my client,” he said. “This is very serious. This is a felony. This is something that should trouble all news outlets in any medium, because otherwise, how do you get this information from the entities? Whoever gets to it first gets the most readers, or ‘likes,’ or whatever. The Laredo Morning Times has subscribers, they sell ads, so why is Lagordiloca being treated differently?”
Stuart Karle, an adjunct media law professor at Columbia Journalism School who formerly served as general counsel at the Wall Street Journal, said it looks as though police have “massively overreacted and overstepped” in charging Villarreal. “If Ms. Villarreal is a journalist, charging her is outrageous, and if she’s a private citizen, it’s at least misguided,” Karle said. “The sworn affidavit alleges that she asked for and received information from a police officer. Assuming that the affidavit accurately describes events, by simply asking for information from law enforcement, Villarreal, as a journalist, or frankly even as a citizen, did nothing wrong. It is not Villarreal’s duty to keep that information secret.”
According to Karle, the U.S. Supreme Court has examined similar cases before, in which journalists were sued for civil damages or charged under statutes punishing anyone who discloses the identity of victims of certain crimes. “Because the information was lawfully obtained by the reporter, and was truthful as published, the Supreme Court held that the journalist could not be fined or punished,” Karle said. “It’s hard to see what Villarreal did, from the description provided in the affidavit, that was so different that it would expose her to punishment.”
Investigators had been working on this case for months. Acting on a tip they received in July, investigators successfully obtained a subpoena for call records between Villarreal and Goodman and extraction software was used to read text messages from Goodman’s cell phone. According to the warrant, when Goodman, a 19-year department veteran, told investigators that she recently bought a new phone and gave her son the old one, two officers immediately went to his elementary school to retrieve it. Police allegedly found text messages on the date of the Border Patrol agent’s suicide, relaying the agent’s name to Villarreal. They also found 506 calls between Goodman and Villarreal from January 1 to July 26 of this year—an average of 72 calls per month—and connected the calls to several instances in which Villarreal allegedly live-streamed footage to her Facebook page, reporting information that had not yet been made public through the department’s official channels.
Goodman, the officer cited in the warrant as Villarreal’s source, has not been charged with a crime. Laredo Police spokesman Joe Baeza told Laredo television station KGNS that Goodman had been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. “For now, there are no indications that this officer or this agent of our department is guilty of anything,” Baeza told the station.
According to Karle, this indicates that the police have “overstepped any legitimate interest” in prosecuting Villarreal. “It is hard to see what genuine interest the state [has] to block the distribution of the information to a citizen or by that citizen to the public,” Karle said.
“I wouldn’t point to Villarreal as a paragon of journalistic virtue,” Karle added, citing a defamation lawsuit Villarreal lost after publishing false allegations of abuse at a Laredo daycare center. “But that doesn’t mean that she loses the protection of the First Amendment in publishing truthful information lawfully obtained.”
Villarreal has acknowledged that she’s often been too loose with facts, and she has indicated that she’s worked to become a better journalist—but if she is convicted then it could have a chilling effect on how reporters at other news outlets approach their own reporting on government agencies. Lozano said he’s never seen a case like this in his fifteen years as a practicing attorney, and a spokesman for the Webb County District Attorney’s Office told the Morning Times that it has never prosecuted a misuse of information case involving a citizen.
Meanwhile, Villarreal isn’t backing down. She posted bond immediately after turning herself in, and she continues to regularly post videos to her Facebook page. She took a short vacation over the weekend to clear her head, but she’s ready to jump back in as Laredo’s most famous nightcrawler. “I will continue to be who I am, and I will continue to serve my community the way I always have,” she said. “Nothing is going to change that, not even my arrest. They can have a grudge, they can do as they please, but I’m not going anywhere. They want to shut me down, and it’s not gonna happen. It won’t happen.”