Federal appeals court strikes down Puerto Rico's criminal libel law

Libel | Feature | January 23, 2003

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Federal appeals court strikes down Puerto Rico's criminal libel law

  • The statute did not comport with basic First Amendment standards, the court ruled.

Jan. 23, 2003 -- The U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston (1st Cir.) invalidated Puerto Rico's criminal libel statute Tuesday, finding that the statute, which was adopted in 1974, failed to comport with basic First Amendment requirements.

The ruling reversed a decision by a lower court, which had refused to hear the case on procedural grounds.

The case was brought by Jesus Mangual, a reporter for the newspaper El Vocero de Puerto Rico, who feared prosecution for articles he had published about government corruption. Mangual's suit requested that the court declare Puerto Rico's criminal libel law unconstitutional and take measures to protect Puerto Rican journalists' right to free speech.

Three other reporters, a newspaper publisher, and the Overseas Press Club, a journalism association, supported Mangual's effort and tried to join the suit as parties. The publisher, Caribbean International News Corporation, and one reporter, Jorge Medina, became parties in the suit. The others submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

All four reporters had written extensively on allegations of corruption among police officers and other government officials. Their reporting efforts had prompted threats of prosecution from government officials, according to court papers.

One of the reporters, Obed Betancourt, also with El Vocero, was charged under the criminal libel statute in 1999. The case against him was dismissed, but Betancourt said in court documents that the threat of prosecution had had a chilling effect on his journalism.

The fourth reporter, Manny Suarez of the San Juan Star, said in papers submitted to the court: "I am in a catch-22 situation, damned if I do, damned if I don't. Clearly the alternative to not living under the risk of prosecution for libel . . . is not to publish. But, is this not a 'chilling effect?'"

The court agreed that the Puerto Rico statute under which the reporters had been threatened had an unconstitutional chilling effect on speech.

The court said that the speech at issue in the suit was "at the heart of the First Amendment."

"The skepticism of government and the importance of the right to freely criticize it are concepts with both deep roots in American history and continuing importance," the court said in its opinion.

The statute failed to protect the freedom of the press in at least three fundamental ways, the court said.

First, the law did not require that "actual malice" -- knowledge of, or reckless disregard for, the truth of a statement -- be proven in cases over the alleged disparagement of a public official. Settled Supreme Court case law requires that "actual malice" be proven in any libel case involving statements about a public official.

Second, the law did not make truth a defense in all cases. The Supreme Court has said that truth must be a defense to any libel claim.

Finally, the provision of Puerto Rico's law pertaining to reports of official acts was invalid. Under constitutional standards, statements about official government acts are protected as long as they are true. Puerto Rico's law imposed a requirement that reports of official acts be "fair" as well as true. The added requirement was too restrictive under First Amendment standards, the court said.

The court noted that unlike other statutes that have been invalidated in recent years, Puerto Rico's criminal libel statute was not "antiquated and moribund." The law was less than thirty years old and had been amended multiple times. Despite clear case law from the Supreme Court, the constitutional infirmities in the law were not fixed in any of the amendment efforts.

(Mangual v. Rotger-Sabat; Media counsel: Juan R. Marchand Quintero) -- WT

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