The Supreme Court decision in Balzac v. People of Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298 (1922), affirmed a libel decision against Jesus M. Balzac, who edited the Puerto Rican news daily El Baluarte. The central issues in the case were jurisdiction and the application of the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial to the territory of Puerto Rico.

Court upheld libel case in Puerto Rico 

In a decision written by Chief Justice William Howard Taft, the Court ruled that it did have jurisdiction in this case, but denied that Congress had “incorporated” Puerto Rico into the Union. It concluded that Congress had not intended to apply to the territory all the provisions of the Bill of Rights, including the Sixth Amendment jury provision, which Puerto Rico did not apply in nonfelony libel cases such as this one.

Taft’s decision, in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. concurred without a written opinion, made relatively short shrift of Balzac’s arguments based on freedom of speech and press. At a time when the Court had yet to make it difficult for public figures to win libel judgments, Taft observed that a reading of the articles at issue “removes the slightest doubt that they go far beyond the ‘exuberant expressions of meridianal [he apparently meant meridional] speech’ ” the Court had cited in Gandia v. Pettingill (1912).

“Indeed they are so excessive and outrageous in their character,” said Taft, “that they suggest the query whether their superlative vilification has not overleapt itself and become unconsciously humorous.” He quickly added, “But this is not a defense.”

John Vile is 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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