A video posted on the Justice RGV Facebook page in July, allegedly leaked by an anonymous employee at the Carrizales-Rucker Detention Center, is now the subject of an active investigation by the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office.
The footage appears to be time-stamped from the jail and shows a detention officer pushing and Macing a Cameron County inmate after he appears to reach for a document in a jailer’s hand while entering the unit.
Justice RGV originally posted the video on July 8, however, the video is time stamped April 27, 2020.
The Cameron County Sheriff’s Office announced the investigation in a Facebook post in which the department offered a reward of up to $5,000 for both the identity of the employee who leaked the video and the name, address, and phone number of the admin(s) of the Justice RGV page.
According to the department’s post, its Criminal Investigations Division is investigating possible charges of misuse of official information and breach of computer security.
The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to an inquiry asking for a statement on its announcement and clarification as to how the leak came to the department’s attention by press time on Thursday.
The post sparked concern that the office’s targeting of a public Facebook page that operates in the vein of media is in violation of the First Amendment.
Justice RGV responded, “We do not know the identity of the person that sent us the video, because it was done through an anonymous channel, but we wouldn’t disclose it even if we knew. Anonymous speech is protected by the first amendment, and we are ready to fight to defend it.”
The Cameron County District Attorney’s Office on Thursday reviewed existing case law on who and what qualifies as media and would therefore be protected when sharing leaked information sent through an anonymous tipper.
Attorneys with the office concluded that if the anonymous tipper had provided the video to formalized media like local newspaper or TV stations, those media outlets would not have to disclose the source.
“ There is case law upon case law that protects the First Amendment, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. That’s the easy one. It would have been improper, illegal to ask [media] who gave it to you,” said DA Luis V. Saenz.
As to whether an anonymously-operated Facebook page qualifies as media, Saenz said staff could not find case law or opinions on the matter. “That question has not been answered. Our inclination is to say that it isn’t.”
The page’s anonymity is what would disqualify it from the protections afforded to press. Even a blog that is operating like media, where writers publish under their legal names and function as journalists, would likely be protected, the office determined.
The reward offered for information leading to the identity of the employee that leaked the video is standard protocol, Saenz said. He added, “The Sheriff does have an interest as an elected official to protect information from being provided outside the proper channels. It shouldn’t happen that way.”
“ There are avenues to get that information, i.e. public information requests — this probably would have qualified. But to release it like that, it’s problematic. It puts inmates and staff in danger.”
Kelley Stone, Executive Director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, confirmed that there’s gray area in the law as to who qualifies as media. “There’s a couple places in the law that kind of spell out what qualifies as a news reporter and what doesn’t, but there’s no blanket law on who is a journalist,” she said.
“ The bigger question here is how a law enforcement agency can be putting out a reward that involves law enforcement resources to find out who is running a website. That does sound like a violation of free speech and free expression.”
If an employee of the agency has misused information as part of their job, that could be a policy issue or a legal issue, she explained.
Brownsville-based attorney Cesar de Leon said that under the Texas Whistleblower Act, if the employee went through superiors, informed them of the incident, and the superiors chose not to act, then that employee would be protected if they chose to publish the video.
“ He could get reinstatement, he could get attorney fees, he could even get an injunction against the Sheriff’s Office,” said the attorney.
As De Leon explained, when a peace officer is in uniform they are under the agency’s obligation to refrain from fredom of speech. However, “When you go home, you take off the uniform, you can say whatever you want,” he added.
There are still ethical concerns at hand — offering a $5,000 reward for Justice RGV’s identity could come across as retaliation, the attorney opined.
And another issue at play involves the fact that Facebook sees itself as a platform but rarely takes responsibility for what registered users post. Who is responsible for the video’s ultimate publication and the fact that it is still up on the website if in violation of the law?
“ That’s a deeper philosophical question to this that is at issue nationally,” De Leon said. “Really, this group is using a platform to disseminate their message.”