PEN America Legal Brief: Puerto Rico Fake News Law Stifles Press Freedoms
Law passed earlier this year to target misinformation would in fact impede reporting and public access
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(New York, NY) — PEN America today filed an amicus brief in district court in Puerto Rico arguing that the island’s recently enacted law against misinformation chills journalists’ ability to report on public emergencies.
Puerto Rico’s new law, passed in April and amended in July, imposes six months’ jail time and/or a $5,000 fine for knowingly disseminating “a warning or false alarm” on social media and news outlets when the government has declared a public emergency. The law does not define “warning or false alarm,” nor does it include a carve-out provision. One of the journalists suing the government, with support from the ACLU of Puerto Rico, experienced that exact situation while reporting on Hurricane Maria and the government’s official death toll numbers.
“Such broad discretion on the part of government to retaliate against its critics is particularly chilling to members of the press and their publishers who serve the essential role of shining light on state action, including governmental ineptitude, corruption or abuse,” the brief, written in collaboration with the University of Georgia’s First Amendment Clinic, reads. Because of this law, “journalists, publishers, and their sources wishing to avoid arrest or prosecution will necessarily refrain from contributing to the public debate on any number of matters of public concern during a state-declared emergency or disaster, including criticizing the government or speaking counter to government narratives.”
“Authoritarian governments all over the world have turned fake news laws into tools for suppressing legitimate speech and reporting; Puerto Rico’s new law is a worryingly similar vehicle for censorship and targeting of reporters,” said Nora Benavidez, director of PEN America’s U.S. free expression programs. “The government of Puerto Rico, which is accountable to the First Amendment and its citizens alike, should not trample on our free press by crippling their independence and ability to report on issues of public concern for the public.”
“Puerto Rico’s ‘false information’ law chills journalists from reporting on newsworthy events during state-declared emergencies and provides a powerful tool for punishing speech the government disfavors or disagrees with,” said Assistant Clinical Professor Clare Norins, director of UGA Law’s First Amendment Clinic. “We are therefore asking the court to enjoin the law’s enforcement to protect both press freedoms and the First Amendment right of the public to receive information on matters of public concern.”