(CN) — Two journalists claim a Puerto Rican law, which makes it a crime to create a false alarm during a state of emergency, is so vague that it could be used to prosecute reporters for breaking-news stories about the coronavirus outbreak.
In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, Sandra Rodriguez Cotto and Rafelli Gonzalez Cotto claim their First Amendment rights are put in jeopardy by the Puerto Rican law that carves out criminal penalties for raising a false alarm and spreading rumors in connection with a large-scale disaster.
The two reporters say that the law’s wording is unconstitutionally vague. One provision establishes a maximum six-month jail sentence and $5,000 fine if, during a disaster, a person spreads a rumor or raises a false alarm regarding “non-existing abnormalities,” a confusing term that has yet to be defined.
The law was amended April 6 to include a section that makes it a crime to “transmit … by any means, through social media or mass media, false information with the intention of creating” panic or confusion over emergency government orders.
The reporters claim the lack of clarity in the wording will allow the Puerto Rican government to carry out “arbitrary, uneven, and selective enforcement” of the law.
Penalties under the April 6 amendment can reach the level of a fourth degree felony if an alleged spread of false information results in property damage or physical injury.
The plaintiffs are represented by Fermin Arraiza-Navas and Brian Hauss of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“These ‘fake news’ laws violate the cardinal principle of the First Amendment, which is that the government cannot be trusted to regulate discussion on matters of public concern,” Hauss said in a statement.
According to Gonzalez Cotto, some of his journalistic sources have clammed up, out of fear that they could face legal action from the government for talking to him.
“One of Mr. González Cotto’s sources informed him that other scientists are afraid that the government would take legal action against them if it were revealed that they disclosed information about the COVID-19 public health emergency in Puerto Rico,” the lawsuit states.
The pleading asks the federal court in Puerto Rico to declare the law to be an unconstitutional infringement on free speech and freedom of the press under the First Amendment, as well as a violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The plaintiffs want the court to restrain Puerto Rico from enforcing the law. They claim that freely reporting on the coronavirus outbreak is all the more important given that Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez Garced has held only a few official press conferences about the virus since mid-April.
“These laws only serve to promote fear in those that demand answers and clean government. They must be struck down as offensive to the First Amendment and democratic government,” William Ramirez, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Puerto Rico, said in a statement.
Rodriguez Cotto is the host of the radio program “En Blanco y Negro con Sandra.” She is known for helping break news of former-Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s offensive phone messages, including one in which he said a New York City councilwoman, who had criticized efforts to establish statehood for Puerto Rico, was a “whore” and should be beaten up. Public outcry over the phone messages led to Rossello’s resignation.
Gonzalez-Cotto is a lawyer and journalist who has worked with El Nuevo Dia, Caribbean Business, and CB en Espanol, among other outlets. He also worked as a communications adviser for the Puerto Rican Senate in 2016.
Gov. Vazquez declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico March 12. Soon after, she ordered a curfew and closed businesses not involved in food sales, medical supply and banking. A reopening program for non-essential businesses began in early May.