ACLU Warns Attorney General to Avoid Civil Liberties Disaster in Military Standoff on Island in Puerto Rico

Affiliate: ACLU of Puerto Rico
May 1, 2000 12:00 am

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SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — As United States police and military gear up to remove protestors tomorrow from federal lands on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico, the American Civil Liberties Union warned Attorney General Janet Reno to avoid a civil liberties disaster.

In a letter sent to the Department of Justice late Friday, the ACLU urged the agency to “exercise maximum restraint in any action” and to “take steps to protect the Constitutional rights of demonstrators, whether or not they may be engaged in acts of civil disobedience.”

Janice Gutierrez Lacourt, Director of the ACLU Chapter in Puerto Rico, said that the ACLU and others would be closely monitoring the planned May 2 removal for any signs that activists right were being trampled.

“The Attorney General has an opportunity here to demonstrate restraint, not of free speech or civil liberties, but of police power,” she said. “We hope that the non-violent protestors on Vieques do not encounter the kind of police overreaction we saw in Seattle.”

At issue on the island of 9,400 people is the continuation of Navy bombing exercises, which activists say have harmed the health and environment of residents. Under the terms of a recent deal between the governor of Puerto Rico and the Clinton administration, a referendum will be held as early as next year to determine whether the Navy will leave. But the deal has been rejected as inadequate by many Puerto Ricans, including the demonstrators on Vieques.

The ACLU’s letter to Reno is below.


Janet Reno, Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington DC 20530-0001

April 28, 2000


Dear Attorney General Reno:

Recent press reports suggest that the Federal Government will soon act to remove demonstrators from Federal lands on the Island of Vieques in Puerto Rico. The National Office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its Chapter in Puerto Rico write to urge that the government exercise maximum restraint in any action and that you take steps to protect the Constitutional rights of demonstrators, whether or not they may be engaged in acts of civil disobedience.

The vigorous public expression of controversial views is a cherished and vital part of American democracy, protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution. It is especially important that the right of Free Expression be fully protected in Puerto Rico, where many of its residents feel that they have a second-class form of American citizenship.

While no one has a legal right to break a valid law, the practice of non-violent civil disobedience has a long and honorable history. And while government officials have a right and a duty to enforce the law, an essential part of the law is that the police may use force only if, and only to the extent that, it is necessary to protect persons or property or to make a valid arrest. Thus, non-violent protest — even if unlawful — should always be met by a non-violent and appropriately restrained response. The recent example of the use of pepper spray, rubber bullets and concussion grenades against non-violent demonstrators during the WTO meeting in Seattle provides an example of the type of unrestrained and disproportionate use of force you should ward against.

In addition to urging the Government to act in a non-violent manner, we urge you to take steps to make certain that other Constitutional guarantees are observed. Specifically, we urge the following:

  1. That any government officials removing the demonstrators who are acting illegally be advised to take special care to respect the First Amendment rights of persons who have gathered in support of the civil disobediants, but who are not engaged in any illegal conduct themselves. No one should be prevented from lawfully speaking, even if that speech is provocative or offensive to the government;
  2. Persons subject to arrest should be treated in accordance with the guarantees of the Constitution. They should be afforded access to restroom facilities, food and water and should not be detained for excessive periods before being arraigned or discharged from custody;
  3. Persons subject to arrest should be afforded prompt access to counsel. It is our understanding that volunteer counsel will be available to represent the demonstrators and they should have full access to their clients and,
  4. Spanish is the first, if not the exclusive language, of most of the demonstrators. Law enforcement officials should be fully prepared to communicate in Spanish either directly or through interpreters and should not expect demonstrators to follow instructions or warnings issued solely in English.

Finally, we urge that any action be taken by civilian law enforcement officials, under your command. This is not a military confrontation or the action of a hostile force. The demonstrators and their supporters are American citizens and civilian officials are better equipped and trained to protect their Constitutional rights.

The ACLU has recently opened an office in San Juan and we would be happy to discuss these matters with your or any member of your staff. You can contact the Director of our Puerto Rico Chapter Janice Gutierrez Lacourt at (787) 283-6396, or you may contact ACLU National Associate Director Barry Steinhardt at (212) 549-2508.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this.


Barry Steinhardt
Associate Director
National ACLU

Janice Gutierrez Lacourt
Executive Director
ACLU of Puerto Rico

CC: William Cohen, Secretary of Defense

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