Court Upholds Defense of Press Freedoms in Landmark “Fake News” Case
A U.S. federal district court previously stuck down a law that would have made it a crime to share information the government deemed false about emergencies in Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A U.S. federal district court today denied a request to reconsider its decision to strike down a Puerto Rico law that made it a crime to knowingly raise a “false alarm” about public emergencies, holding that “[t]he watchdog function of speech is never more vital than during a large-scale crisis.”
Earlier this year, the court ruled that the law violated the First Amendment because its broad sweep created a danger of partisan abuse or selective enforcement, enabling the government to suppress or chill speech that contradicts its official narrative. “[I]nstead of criminalizing speech,” the court observed, “the Legislature could simply have required the Government to use its multiple communications platforms to present a complete and accurate description of the facts” relating to emergencies in Puerto Rico.
The ACLU and the ACLU of Puerto Rico argued that Puerto Rico’s law gave people far too little guidance on what speech may constitute a crime, and the government far too much discretion in deciding whom to prosecute.
“We are pleased that the court reaffirmed its important defense of press freedoms and freedom of speech,” said Brian Hauss, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “Government transparency – rather than censorship – is the key to public safety in a free and democratic society.”
If left in place, the law would have chilled reporting on the COVID-19 crisis and other emergencies, because journalists risked prosecution if the government disputed the accuracy of their reporting. Those found in violation of the law faced penalties of up to three years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
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