Esta página no está disponible en español.

Associated Press Newswires

Gov’t Won’t Appeal Federal Court’s Ruling That Puerto Rico's Criminal Libel Law Violates First Amendment

January 23, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Puerto Rico's government won't appeal a federal court's ruling that the U.S. territory's criminal libel law is unconstitutional, an official said Thursday.

In the ruling handed down Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, sided with the Puerto Rican newspaper El Vocero. The case stemmed from a series of articles published in the newspaper about alleged corruption in a police drug squad.

Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch said in the ruling that the criminal libel statute is unconstitutional "as applied to statements regarding public officials or figures" and conflicts with the free-speech guarantees of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

"We are going to accept the court's decision," said Zulma Raices, a spokeswoman for Puerto Rico's Justice Department.

The 1974 statute says public officials are allowed to seek criminal prosecution against anyone who makes false statements in relation to the performance of officials' duties. Under the law offenders could face a sentence of up to six months in prison plus fines.

The legal challenge was initially brought by reporter Obed Betancourt and El Vocero, published by Caribbean International News Corporation, following a series of articles by Betancourt in 1998.

In particular, he wrote that one officer in a police drug squad in Caguas, a city south of San Juan, was having an affair with a drug dealer. The officer, Elsa Rivera Colon, brought a libel lawsuit against the reporter and newspaper, while also filing a complaint with the Caguas police against Betancourt for criminal libel.

The case on which the appeals court ruled was brought by another reporter, Tomas de Jesus Mangual, who wrote about the libel complaint against his colleague and said he feared prosecution under the law.

He and other reporters argued that threats of prosecution had a "chilling effect."

The Court of Appeals ruled the criminal libel law was deficient in that it didn't meet the required standard that "actual malice" be proven.

The court reversed a lower court's dismissal of the case and ordered it sent back to U.S. District Court, where the challenge previously was dismissed.

According to the Court of Appeals' judgment, there were at least two other prosecutions under Puerto Rico's criminal libel statute during 2001. Neither case involved journalists.

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback