Puerto Rico Decides The 1st Amendment Doesn't Apply To Its Citizens; Criminalizes 'Fake News'
from the bad-PR-for-PR dept
Puerto Rico is a US territory and its citizens have been citizens of the United States since 1917. A little more than one hundred years later, the local government has decided the rights granted to Puerto Ricans by the US Constitution aren’t really rights — not in the middle of a pandemic.
The government is already receiving criticism (and at least one lawsuit) for its COVID-related crackdowns, which include quarantine and curfew orders that appear to violate Constitutional rights. Now, the government has added onto its Public Security law to criminalize certain kinds of speech. Here’s the Committee to Protect Journalists on the island’s “fake news” law. (h/t Sarah McLaughlin)
Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez signed an amendment to the island’s Public Security law on April 6 making it illegal for media outlets or social media accounts “to transmit or allow the transmission” of “false information” relating to government proclamations or executive orders concerning COVID-19 or other disasters, according to the order and news reports.
The government will apparently be the final arbiter on the truthiness of transmitted information. The law’s wording covers a lot of ground — and a lot of protected speech.
[I]t makes it illegal for media outlets or social media accounts “to transmit or allow the transmission” of “false information with the intention of creating confusion, panic, or public hysteria, with regards to any proclamation or executive order declaring an emergency, disaster or curfew.”
Yeah, that could cover a lot of things. Causing confusion is almost a given, even in official government proclamations. If someone’s “fake news” mamanges to cause more than $10,000 in damage to “public-sector finances” (pretty easy to do at government rates) or leads to the “damage or injury of physical property,” the previously-protected speech will be considered a fourth-degree criminal offense. That makes it a low-level felony, punishable by six months in jail and fines of up to $5,000.
As the CPJ notes, this doesn’t just violate the Constitution, it makes it more difficult for journalists to cover the pandemic as it unfolds. A lack of solid information isn’t the same thing as misinformation, but criminalizing speech the government feels is inaccurate (and costs money to respond to) is only going to result in less information being spread. “Fake news” laws tend to do collateral damage to non-fake news reporting as reporters in the middle of unfolding events opt to self-censor, rather than run the risk of being prosecuted. This won’t withstand a Constitutional challenge, but until the law is blocked, everyone in Puerto Rico will have to make do with a little less First Amendment.