The per curiam Supreme Court decision in El Vocero de Puerto Rico v. Puerto Rico, 508 U.S. 147 (1993), affirmed that the ruling in Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of California (1986) forbidding mandatory closings of preliminary criminal hearings also applied in Puerto Rico.

Such closed hearings, the Court found, violated the First Amendment.

Court found closed preliminary criminal hearings in Puerto Rico violated the First Amendment

A privacy provision in the Puerto Rican Rules of Criminal Procedure allowed for closed hearings unless the defendant requested otherwise. El Vocero de Puerto Rico, the island’s largest newspaper, had challenged the rule, which the Puerto Rican Supreme Court upheld.

Although Puerto Rican courts had cited special cultural factors unique to the island, the Supreme Court observed that courts should not look at the unique experience of the island but “to the experience in that type or kind of hearing throughout the United States.”

Like the hearings that the Court had opened in Press-Enterprise Co., those in Puerto Rico included some features — including the presence of counsel, the use of cross-examination, and the presentation of affirmative offenses — that resembled those of actual trials.

Court was willing to consider hearing closures on a case-by-case basis

In place of a general rule, the Court was willing to consider the closure of such hearings on a case-by-case basis in situations in which pre-trial publicity would create “a substantial probability that the defendant’s right to a fair trial will be prejudiced by publicity that closure would prevent” and where “reasonable alternatives to closure cannot adequately protect the defendant’s fair trial rights.”

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.

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