Puerto Rico elections regulations threaten social media campaigning
Leading up to the election season, there has been a considerable amount of contention regarding the role social media plays in politics. Consequently, in Puerto Rico, the circular letter OCE-DET-2020-02 suggests that political officials, namely mayors, will face a monetary penalty if they make posts on social media that reveal their current position or their achievements, slogans, or logos related to their campaign while in office. This includes both official and personal social media accounts and applies to those who are currently campaigning for a position in the upcoming election.
For example, this means that if a certain person is running for re-election, they cannot post that they currently hold the position. Additionally, they would not be able to post about what they did in office or how effective they were, including topics such as projects, statistics, or general accomplishments. For instance, if this hypothetical political official implemented programs to lower unemployment, they would not be able to post about it on social media and use it to support their campaign efforts.
However, this proposal was not well received. The rise of COVID-19 and social distancing has caused social media to be more important than ever before in campaigning. It allows candidates to reach out to the public without risking anyone catching the virus, and to reach the public on platforms where they spend a great deal of time. Alternatively, this raises the question as to whether social media is more beneficial or harmful to how political campaigns are carried out. Regardless, a number of mayors from 45 municipalities have come together to challenge this circular letter. They make claims that it infringes upon their freedom of speech, and treads dangerously along the lines of censorship and government control over the expression of truth.
The mayors are represented by the plaintiff Puerto Rico Association of Mayors and its president, challenging the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission. They make an argument that this circular letter is unconstitutional. They cite various cases such as Buckley v Valeo in 1976, Eu v San Francisco City in 1989, and Burson v Freeman in 1992, in supporting that the first amendment applies towards freedom of political speech in campaigning. After defining this, they proceed to argue that restricting political officers from posting about their positions and accomplishments on social media is restricting their right to freedom of political speech.
Additionally, these mayors worry about the consequences of a ban such as this, and how it could gradually lead to more control over official documents and communications. Not only would this influence the fairness of elections, they believe it could impact the pursuit of truth and honesty from political officials in general. While the circular letter may have been trying to eliminate biased influence from social media, there may have been unintended implications.