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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

PR high court: Journalists have qualified privilege exempting them from revealing sources

The Puerto Rico Supreme Court

By The Star Staff

In a historic decision for the island’s free speech rights, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court has ruled that journalists have a qualified privilege that exempts them from revealing the names of sources in libel suits.

While federal courts recognize the existence of such a privilege, local courts do not acknowledge it, putting journalists at risk of being ordered to divulge a source’s name. The historic opinion was issued Wednesday in José R. Izquierdo II v. Enrique “Kike” Cruz, and others.

The Supreme Court was asked to determine if such a privilege exists as part of the Puerto Rico Constitution’s free speech rights.

The ruling is the result of a libel lawsuit filed on Dec. 18, 2020, by José R. Izquierdo II, former executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, against journalist and political commentator Enrique “Kike” Cruz, and others, following a newspaper column published in December 2017. Cruz, in the publication titled “The harasser, the accessory and his victims,” accused Izquierdo of having engaged in conduct constituting harassment and sexual assault. Izquierdo was fired from his job and suffered other damages.

During the discovery, Cruz refused to identify the names of the people referred to in the column because he believed they were not relevant to the cause of action. He also refused to reveal his sources on the grounds that such information constituted a privileged matter.

The Court of First Instance supported Cruz’s assertion, but the Appeals Court overturned the lower court’s decision, ordering the disclosure of the sources. Cruz filed for reconsideration, which was denied. Consequently, he appealed to the Supreme Court, which recognized the existence of a qualified privilege.

The Supreme Court said that although there are no specific laws that establish the protection of journalistic sources, the island Constitution protects a reporter’s work and its confidential sources under freedom of expression and the press.

The top court noted that the qualified privilege is key to keeping the trust between journalists and their sources.

However, freedom of expression and the press are not absolute, the Court noted. In situations where the identification of journalistic sources is required, such as in libel cases, the top court indicated that courts must balance the interests and evaluate the facts before ordering the disclosure of sources.

The relevance of the identity of the journalistic source for the adjudication of the action must be examined. If the court determines the information is relevant to the case, it must then determine whether the party seeking the name of the source has presented enough evidence to establish the falsehood and defamatory nature of what was published, efforts to discover the source by other means, and the need to know the identity of the source to establish a cause of action.

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