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Puerto Rico Department of Justice executes search warrant against three student media outlets

October 23, 2019

The Puerto Rico Department of Justice issued a search warrant for the Facebook accounts of three university publications on May 5, 2017, seeking information about student protestors who had rallied that April against austerity cuts at a meeting of the University of Puerto Rico's governing board.

Seven of those students will go on trial this November for interrupting the meeting. That interruption was part of a lengthy student-led protest movement against austerity cuts that effectively shut down the majority of the university’s eleven campuses for several months in the spring of 2017.

Superior Court Judge Rafael E. Jimenez-Rivera signed off on the search warrant, which requested Facebook data covering the period between April 26-28, 2017, from three student publications: Pulso Estudiantil, UPR Dialogue, and Centro de Comunicación Estudiantil.

Facebook provided some 1,553 pages of information from Pulso Estudiantil's Facebook account to the Puerto Rico Department of Justice, including private messages, photos, videos, comments and the names of those who commented on the account’s posts. Facebook provided another 1,500 pages from the account of Centro de Comunicación Estudiantil, according to a statement from CCE spokesman Gabriel Casals published by Metro Puerto Rico. Casals went on to demand that the charges against the student protesters be dropped.

The terms of the search warrant prevented Facebook from notifying the impacted parties for 90 days. Neither Facebook nor the Department of Justice notified the student media outlets about the search warrant after that period expired, according to a report from Pulso Estudiantil. Facebook’s policies require such notification, NoticEl reported, citing an attorney from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and so this constitutes a lapse on the part of the social networking site.

Editors at Pulso Estudiantil only learned of the search warrant on Sept. 27, 2019, when a staffer for Denis Márquez Lebrón, a member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, contacted them via Facebook about the matter. Lawyers representing the seven students on trial had uncovered the documents in the course of the discovery process, Marisol Nazario, executive director of Pulso Estudiantil, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

"We consider this to be a violation of our freedom of the press and our privacy," Nazario said. “If this happened to us, this could happen to any news outlet in Puerto Rico.”

At the time the search warrant was issued, now-Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced was then Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Justice. When asked about the warrant at a press conference in October, Vázquez Garced said the warrant was issued properly as part of a criminal investigation, El Nuevo Dia reported.

A lawyer representing one of the seven students on trial for interrupting the university board meeting plans to challenge the legality of the search warrant, Metro Puerto Rico reported.

Márquez Lebrón introduced a House resolution on Sept. 19, 2019, calling for the body to investigate the matter and weigh in on whether the search warrant was constitutional.

"The House of Representatives must conduct an investigation in order to assess whether public security agencies are complying with the requirements established in the Constitution of Puerto Rico when accessing electronically stored information," the resolution says.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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