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Law restricting writings about judicial proceedings struck down

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Law restricting writings about judicial proceedings struck down 04/20/98 PUERTO RICO--In early March, a federal District Court in San Juan…

Law restricting writings about judicial proceedings struck down

04/20/98

PUERTO RICO–In early March, a federal District Court in San Juan struck down as unconstitutional a statute making it a felony to write or publish any material drafted to persuade or influence a judge in a pending case, other than in the regular course of proceedings.

District Judge Hector Lafitte held that Puerto Rico’s Criminal Code Article 247 is a content-based restriction on speech subject to the highest level of scrutiny. Although Lafitte said that the government has a compelling interest in protecting the integrity of judicial proceedings, he said the statute violated the First Amendment because it does not require a finding that a defendant act “corruptly” or “improperly.”

Accordingly, the court said, a newspaper editorial criticizing a judge’s ruling in an ongoing case could be found to violate the statute, contravening U.S. Supreme Court precedent holding that editorials criticizing judicial proceedings are protected by the First Amendment.

The action was filed by the editor and publisher of the San Juan newspaper El Vocero.

Lafitte rejected Puerto Rico’s argument that the newspaper did not have standing to challenge the statute because the law had not been enforced against it. The judge found that the newspaper’s fear of prosecution was reasonable and credible, noting that the statute had been enforced against speakers, although not specifically against newspapers.

Lafitte further observed that the statute could lead to self- censorship, which would have a “chilling” effect on a free press.

Puerto Rico filed a notice of appeal to the federal appeals court in Boston (1st Cir.), but later voluntarily withdrew the appeal. (Carribean International News Corp. v. Agostini; Media Counsel: Juan Marchand, San Juan)