While Puerto Rico continues to suffer from an epidemic of drug-related street crime, legislative efforts to update its criminal laws have drawn a First Amendment challenge in the federal district court in San Juan.
Of all the crimes faced by the “Island of Enchantment,” a U.S. Territory, legislators decided to tackle what they view as criminal acts related to public protests.
The island’s new criminal code imposes a mandatory three-year prison term on anyone who “engages in any disorder” in the “immediate view and presence” of the Puerto Rico Legislature, or of any municipal council, that “tend to interrupt their activities” or “reduce the respect due to their authority.”
The legislation was approved last month by Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño, one of the speakers at this month’s Republican National Convention in Tampa.
The new provision was immediately challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, which for years has been denouncing the Puerto Rico Police Department for excessive force against nonviolent protesters.
The street demonstrations, which have been taking place on and off since early 2009, have included protests against the austerity policies of the Fortuño administration. These have included the mass layoff of some 17,000 unionized government employees, and large budget cutbacks and tuition and fee increases at public universities.