Puerto Rico


By Victoria Baxter      



The First Amendment rights of the U.S. Constitution have played a vital role in the way speech, communication, and expression are perceived in American culture. In order to better understand these freedoms and their context, it is necessary to analyze how the same rights can be portrayed in other areas of the world. For instance, Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, but it is influenced by an array of cultural differences that affect the way the rights of free speech and press are viewed and carried out in society.

Historical Background

Throughout the last five centuries, the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico has had a colorful history. In 1493, Christopher Columbus discovered the island on his second voyage, quickly becoming one of Spain’s most important locations in the New World. Over the next 400 years, Spain controlled Puerto Rico as a colony, giving the Roman Catholic Church the opportunity to plant deep roots into the culture, as well as the chance to generate a profound hatred of authority. This led to the early emergence of freethinking organizations within the Puerto Rican left, attributing to the history of anarchism and rebellion in Puerto Rican and Boricua culture since the 1800s. For example, Belén de Sárraga (1872-1950) traveled through Puerto Rico speaking on freedom of speech, particularly focusing on women’s freedom and its necessity in order for society to progress. Because of Puerto Rico’s anticlerical and rebellious roots, such a speaker was able to blossom and receive the political attention she deserved.[i] Around the time of her prominence, Spain lost Puerto Rico to the United States during the Spanish-American War of 1898. It wasn’t until 1917 that the United States granted Puerto Ricans citizenship, conveniently in time for 18,000 natives to be drafted into World War I. In 1948, Puerto Ricans elected their first governor and created a new Constitution in 1952[ii]; however, it is still subject to the United States Constitution: “…Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.” [iii] Because the U.S. constitution maintains authority over Puerto Rican law, islanders are granted the same First Amendment rights as U.S. citizens; however, the local interpretation of such rights can vary greatly. This is due, at least in part, to a growing division and discontent among Puerto Ricans as they attempt to either reimagine or preserve their cultural identity.[iv] As citizens debate whether or not to become a state of the US, an independent country, or remain a territory, they continuously face growing economic disparity, leading to great amounts of unrest and, at times, an avid expression of First Amendment rights.

Freedom of Expression

Many of the biggest and most historic cases on free speech and free press have been under the specific jurisdiction of the U.S. government. Instead of focusing on these cases, the following paragraph will place emphasis on identifying more recent cases that are specific to the island in order to better examine the cultural influences that play a part in the dispute over the rights of expression in Puerto Rico. In 1993, pop singer Madonna created an uproar on her tour through Puerto Rico when she pulled the national flag between her legs on the concert stage. Many people viewed this as desecration of the flag; in fact, the Puerto Rican House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution to officially condemn the singer for showing disrespect to their flag.[v] As of three years before the incident, Puerto Rico had no laws regarding the desecration of the flag, yet the custom of the island feels that the sexualization of their flag and the offense that it caused viewers is unacceptable. On another note, an argument can be made that there is more police brutality in Puerto Rico. In 1999, U.S. Navy officials were charged with violating the free-speech and free-assembly rights of demonstrators when they tear-gassed and fired rubber bullets at islanders protesting the military bombing exercises in Vieques, an island a few miles off the coast of Puerto Rico. According to the suit, demonstrators began gathering to protest bombing practices in April of 1999 after a stray bomb from a U.S. fighter jet killed a civilian employee, David Sanes Rodriguez. The suit claims the majority of protesters were engaged peacefully, yet during the protests, naval personnel dressed in full riot gear and used violent measures, such as chemical agents fired from grenade launchers, to break up the assembly. Panic ensued, resulting in the injury of many civilians. The suit resulted in the decision that the Navy had violated the First Amendment by attempting to suppress an unfavorable viewpoint in Vieques. Although the suit was seen as a victory for free speech rights, President George Bush didn’t order the Navy to cease military activity on the island until nearly four years later in 2003.[vi] In addition, from 2010 to 2011, there was a collection of peaceful demonstrations performed by students attending the University of Puerto Rico in order to protest the increasing privatization and cost of higher education.[vii] Students in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Spain supported the movement both locally and internationally. The university administration launched several counter ads that referred to the protesting students as liars and threatened to deny them access to the institution unless they ended the protests. When the case was finally sent to court, the result was an ordered mediation, giving the protesting students access to such resources that enabled them to defend themselves legally. The mediation favored the educational establishments already in place, resulting in the continuation of protests. By 2011, several students involved in the violent and nonviolent protests had been injured, some seriously, by police that used excessive force and pepper spray during arrests. Eventually, after the students were denied change in their universities, the protests died out without lasting result. While it is favorable that the students were, in the long run, tolerated, the lack of resulting change to the education system and the lack of punishment to officers engaged in police brutality creates a tone of political tension on the island. Most recently in 2012, a lawsuit was filed in order to seek a permanent injunction to stop Justice Secretary Guillermo Somoza from enforcing a new law on protests and demonstrations. A portion of it states that people who disrupt, interrupt or prevent legislators from performing public duties or cause disorder while in the immediate view and presence of lawmakers will be charged with a three-year sentence. The American Civil Liberties Union says the proposal for the law is vague in language and does not offer law enforcement or protesters any guidelines on what type of conduct would be considered a violation. The proposal has been described as an unconstitutional ploy to prevent people from protesting their government.[viii] As of 2016, a decision has not been reached on whether the proposal will be allowed to pass.

The Federal Communications Commission, a nonpartisan agency which regulates the U.S. Congress, oversees media in Puerto Rico, as well as in all 50 states and the other districts and territories. The FCC’s job is to make certain that TV and radio stay free and fair, which is part of the reason why Puerto Rico has such a rich history in public media. The first Puerto Rican newspaper was published in 1806; by 1867, the Spanish government had attempted to control the press with regulations, such as only allowing newspapers to criticize the government if they paid fee of 500 pesos. The island found much more freedom of expression when Spain lost their control of it. For example, in the first two years after Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States, hundreds of newspapers flourished in Spanish and in English.[ix] Because of Puerto Rico’s tradition of brilliant media usage, it is shocking to current day commentators that the news is being challenged. The ongoing economic crisis has resulted in the loss of several newspapers, limiting access to the media by citizens of Puerto Rico.[x] In 2003, Puerto Rico’s government refused to appeal a ruling that the territory’s criminal libel law was unconstitutional. The case escalated to the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with the Puerto Rican newspaper El Vocero, which wrote that one officer in a police drug squad in Caguas, a city south of San Juan, was having an affair with a drug dealer. The officer, Elsa Rivera Colon, filed a libel lawsuit against the reporter and the newspaper, while also filing a criminal libel complaint with the Caguas police. Several reporters have argued that threats of libel prosecution had a chilling effect on their ability to report. The circuit court ruled the criminal libel law in Puerto Rico was deficient in that it didn’t meet the required standard that “actual malice” be proven.[xi] More recently in 2009, several university professors in Puerto Rico protested a decision to ban five books from being taught at public high schools due to their coarse language and vulgar themes. The books were originally read by the 11th grade and included: Mejor te lo cuento: antologia personal, by Juan Antonio Ramos and Aura by Carlos Fuentes, which is one of Latin America’s most prominent contemporary writers. The other authors whose books were banned are native Puerto Ricans. Magali Garcia Ramis, a communications professor at the University of Puerto Rico, expressed his distaste for the school board’s decision in saying that “this kind of mentality rejects everything that is art and only associates sexuality with inappropriateness.” Other professors described the censorship as being similar to that of the Taliban.[xii] Though a lot of resistance was put forth by several school faculty and staff, students, and community members to end the banning of these books in public schools, the school board carried on with the action anyway, signifying an unfortunate win for those in power that wish to partake in censorship.

Puerto Rico and the United States: A Critical Comparison                              

Because of the unique relationship that Puerto Rico has with the United States, describing the intricate differences in rights between the two can be difficult. While Internet access in Puerto Rico is slower and more expensive than in the rest of the United States, their First Amendment rights on the Internet are not restricted. Freedom of assembly is protected by law in Puerto Rico, as it is in the United States; however, Puerto Ricans frequently protest local or federal government policies, more so than American citizens. In Puerto Rico, it is rare that the protests see actual change,[xiii] much like in the United States, with the exception that these protests are often much more desperate due to the extenuating economic circumstances of the island. It is unclear whether placing the blame for the political unrest in Puerto Rico on a lack of freedom of speech is fair, because it seems as the actual laws in place are not restraining people from expressing their views or making their voices heard. However, when protesters are faced with violent attacks from police, it is hard to keep the momentum needed in order to create real political change. Perhaps the biggest differences in freedom of speech and press between the U.S. and Puerto Rico are cultural. For instance, in 2016 it would not be shocking to see a pop icon use the American flag as a sexual prop. The Flag Protection Act of 1989 was repealed in 1990 by United States V. Eichman, meaning that it is a violation of First Amendment rights to make a law against desecration of the flag. Yet, in Puerto Rican culture, it was still a generally agreed upon action that banning Madonna from the island was an appropriate response. In addition, libel suits seem to be handled congruently in Puerto Rico and the United States. For example, the Puerto Rican case between El Vocero and the officer is much like Near V. Minnesota, a case argued in 1930 in which a newspaper accused officers of mingling with gangsters. In both cases, the libel charges were overthrown in order to protect freedom of speech and avoid censorship. However, instances of censorship in the U.S. are not uncommon, especially when referring to the public education system. Like in Puerto Rico, books are not always protected from regulation. In fact, since 1990, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has recorded more than 11,000 book challenges, 75% of which were books to be pulled out of public schools. Challenges do not indicate that a book was successfully banned, but that a person filed a request for it to be.[xiv]


Puerto Rico has very similar freedoms compared to the United States in regards to free speech and free press. The cultural differences between the two locations create slight discrepancies in how they handle certain cases. Typically, the more subjective the case, such as in the instance of flag deprivation, the bigger the difference will be. In cases with clearer legislation, such as protest and libel suits, the differences have less opportunity to grow.



This essay was last updated on April 30, 2016.


Work Cited

[i] 1909–1912”. “Anarchists, Freethinkers, and Spiritists: The Progressive Alliance Against the Catholic Church, 1909–1912”. Black Flag Boricuas: Anarchism, Antiauthoritarianism, and the Left in Puerto Rico, 1897-1921. University of Illinois Press, 2013. 92–105.

[ii] Quiros, Samuel. “Puerto Rico: A History of Colonialism.” Puerto Rico 51. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2016.

[iii] Article IV, Section 3 of the United States Constitution (also known as the “Territorial Clause

[iv] Acosta Cruz, María . Dream Nation: Puerto Rican Culture and the Fictions of Independence. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2014. Project MUSE.

[v] “Neonationalism, Postmodernism, and Other Debates”. 2007. In Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History Since 1898, 316–34. University of North Carolina Press.

[vi] Samuels, Alicia Benjamin. “First Amendment Center.” First Amendment Center. N.p., 29 June 2001. Web 1 Mar. 2016.

[vii] Stanchich, Ph. D. Maritza. “University of Puerto Rico Student Strike Victory Unleashes Brutal Civil Rights Backlash.” The Huffington Post. 04 July 2010. Web. 1 Mar. 2016

[viii] “First Amendment Center.” First Amendment Center. N.p., 8 Aug. 2012. Web 1 Mar. 2016.

[ix] “The End of Free Press in Puerto Rico?” Puerto Rico 51st. N.p. 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.

[x] “Puerto Rico.” Freedom House. N.p. 2015. Web. 1 Mar. 2016

[xi] “Puerto Rico Won’t Appeal Ruling That Struck Down Criminal-Libel Law.” First Amendment Center. N.p., 28 Jan. 2003. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.

[xii] “Professors Decry Decision to Ban Books in Puerto Rico High Schools.” First Amendment Center. N.p., 15 Spet. 2009. Web. Mar. 2016.

[xiii] “Puerto Rico.” Freedom House. N.p., 2015. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.

[xiv] Stevens, Roberta. “Yes, There Is Still Book Banning in the United States.”The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 Sept. 2010. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.

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