Puerto Rico’s government, under pressure from an uncontrollable crime wave that could affect the controlling party’s re-election prospects, approved a new penal code that toughens sentences for violent crimes. Unfortunately, it includes a statute that infringes on freedom of expression and assembly. (The law also includes a questionable propoposal to end the right to bail for violent crimes that will be voted on a referendum this Sunday.)
The law, which goes into effect on Sept. 1, imposes tough restrictions on public demonstrations with sentences as long as three years for protesters who disrupt the work of legislators.
The ban is a clear attempt against the right of Puerto Ricans to express their points of view on government policies. We call for it to be repealed.
In response to this bad policy, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Puerto Rico filed a motion requesting a permanent injunction of this provision. This is an addendum to a lawsuit the ACLU in Puerto Rico had already filed, demanding that repressive police tactics be declared unconstitutional.
The ACLU’s move addresses the obvious contempt Gov. Luis Fortuño’s administration has for the right to express opposition in public. This was evident during student protests in 2010 when Puerto Rican police officers were recorded violently cracking down on demonstrators. The U.S. Department of Justice documented this and other police abuse and is pushing for reforms on the island.
Ironically, Fortuño’s pro-U.S. statehood government insists on disregarding basic U.S. constitutional rights. Puerto Rican journalists and commentators have pointed out that U.S. citizens, among them islanders, often protest in Washington without risking more than a fine or, in the worst case scenario, a six-month jail term.
Puerto Ricans have a long history of civic participation and protest. No government should undermine that spirit of struggle and dissent, especially when it rails against harsh and undemocratic tactics.