I would like to draw your attention to a troubling case in Laredo, Texas, where police have arrested Priscilla Villarreal, a citizen journalist who documents the city’s nightlife. Villarreal apparently has a talent for getting ahead of the professional competition on late-night stories. (I am not personally familiar with her work and make no claims as to its quality.) One of those stories involved the suicide of a Border Patrol agent. Villarreal was able to discover the identity of the agent in question (by asking a police officer) and published it before police made their official announcement. She has been charged with two felonies related to “misuse of official information.” The legal theory at work is that it is not only a crime but a felony to publish information before the police are ready to have it published, if the party publishing the information hopes to gain by doing so.
The criminal complaint is hilariously stupid: “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.” That’s the crime.
George Orwell is supposed to have said that journalism consists in printing things powerful people don’t want to see printed, and that everything else is public relations. Villarreal has sparred on video with police officers in the past and is well-known to the department. This arrest reeks of pure police retaliation. This is an abuse of power that ought not be allowed to stand. The charges should be dropped, and the police and prosecutors who signed off on arresting Villarreal for committing an act of journalism ought to face official reprimand or worse.