On 20 May 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its Puerto Rico National Chapter filed a lawsuit on behalf of investigative journalists Sandra Rodríguez Cotto and Rafelli González Cotto for violation of the United States Constitution’s First Amendment. The lawsuit challenges the two most recently passed laws that criminalise the sharing of information the government deems to be “fake news”.
The lawsuit, which was filed with the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, seeks a ruling declaring both laws to be unconstitutional since they represent an attack on press freedom rights and violate the First and Fourth Amendments of the United States Constitution. The lawsuit notes that the laws lead to self-censorship, chilling reporting on Covid-19 and other emergencies, in addition to leaving journalists who question the government’s work vulnerable to prosecution. If found guilty journalists could face anywhere from six month to three years in jail, in addition to a fine of USD $5,000.
Puerto Rico is the only US jurisdiction with laws on its books that criminalise commentary. The ACLU’s lawsuit sets a precedent that will aid in preventing similar laws from being passed in other US jurisdictions. Laws of this nature are dangerous since they may be applied selectively to prosecute those who are critical of the government or its officials. The provisions of the laws are vague, broad in scope and violate constitutional rights to freedom of expression and press freedom.
The laws fail to require the government to demonstrate that the individual responsible for disseminating purportedly “fake news” knew that the information was false. The laws also provide citizens with very little guidance regarding what may constitute a crime and give the government too much discretion to decide who should be prosecuted. As such, the laws paralyse important reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic crisis and other emergencies, specifically because journalists run the risk of being prosecuted for their investigative work.
The two journalists who are plaintiffs in the case have noted that some of their sources are refusing to share information, noting concerns over possible prosecution under the “fake news” laws. In addition to intimidating journalists and sources, the laws also represent a significant barrier to information of interest to the public and to debate at a time when the citizens of Puerto Rico require information in order to deal with the effects of the ongoing pandemic.
IFEX-ALC, Fundamedios and ACM understand that the imposition of a state of emergency in order to confront the health crisis allows for limitations on certain rights, such as those relating to movement and assembly. Even in this context, however, any restrictions should be minimized to the extent possible and the state of emergency must never be interpreted to justify more extensive limitations on other rights, such as those relating to press freedom and freedom of expression. On the contrary, the latter rights are of utmost importance within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
We call on the Puerto Rican government to repeal the so-called “fake news” laws and comply with international standards for guaranteeing and protecting the right to freedom of expression and information.
IFEX-ALC, which forms part of the global IFEX network, is comprised of 24 organisations in 14 Latin America and Caribbean countries dedicated to defending freedom of expression and press freedom.
Source: MEDIA FEED