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Texas Journalists Encounter Court Headaches and Potential Jailtime in the Search for Information

Recent court-related actions point to the ongoing difficulty Texas journalists face in simply doing their job of informing the public. 

The problems are not just in the state district court system; the Fifth Court of Appeals in New Orleans has in recent months overturned two favorable lower federal court decisions involving Texas journalists, both of which saw TAB amicus briefs in support of those lower court’s decisions. 

This month Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals not only ruled against independent journalist Priscilla Villarreal, better known by her online moniker La Gordiloca (the crazy fat lady), but also found that Laredo officials acted reasonably when they arrested her under an arcane Texas law.  

Essentially, the court said it was permissible for law enforcement in Texas to arrest, detain or even threaten a Texas journalist who publishes documents leaked from local government. The decision could have a chilling effect on basic watchdog journalism. 

In a case such as the Uvalde school shooting, for example, journalists who broadcast the leaked video from inside the school would be subject to law enforcement action. In a dissenting opinion, one judge in the case said the court’s move means journalists “will only be able to report information the government chooses to share.”  This is the core of Texas journalists’ lawsuit seeking access to law enforcement records in the Uvalde case.

Villarreal said she would seek a review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Fifth Circuit court’s ruling comes on the heels of its decision last fall to uphold the Texas drone statute after a lower court said its restrictive provisions were an unconstitutional infringement on First Amendment media protections. The National Press Photographers Association is now seeking an en banc hearing by the court. 

An Upcoming Court Fight

Last week the Fort Worth City Council approved a lawsuit to fight the Texas Attorney General’s order to release details about the city’s police chase policy. As KTVT’s I-Team pointed out in a 2023 report, many other Texas police departments not only make such policies available, but those municipalities have also posted them online. 

The move comes after the AG’s office ruled last fall the policy should be released, although the city could withhold portions of it. The city had argued that disclosure would show law enforcement’s hand in certain police responses such as high-speed chases.

Questions? Contact TAB’s Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944. 

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