San Juan Star Sues to Stop Competitor's Ads: English-Language Daily Says House Ads Accusing Star of Falsifying Circulation Are Libelous

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THE SAN JUAN Star, Puerto Rico's only English-language daily, is suing a rival business newspaper for $300,000 for a series of "libelous" full-page house ads that accuse the Star of lying about its circulation.

The lawsuit, filed in San Juan Superior Court, seeks a cease-and-desist order to stop the advertising, which is appearing in Caribbean Business, a weekly paper owned by Casiano Communications Inc.

One ad charged that the Star, a Scripps Howard paper, is making false circulation claims for its Thursday "Plus" edition, which carries a higher advertising rate. Another attacked the Star for having run a feature story about Puerto Ricans who use mail-order catalogs to do their shopping via the U.S. mainland. That ad ran under a big headline that read, "How can a local newspaper, right at the beginning of the holiday gift-giving season, do this to you? Is this the newspaper 'that cares' for your business?"

Named as a defendant in the suit is Manuel A. Casiano Jr., chairman of Casiano Communications Inc., which publishes Caribbean Business. Casiano, a former chief of Puerto Rico's Economic Development Administration, also publishes Imagen, a Spanish-language magazine for women; Buena Salud, a glossy health magazine aimed at Hispanics, and several business directories.

"I feel very sorry that we have to use this method to clarify an unfounded claim from a competitor," said Adolfo Comas Bacardi, the Star's president and publisher, in a Star article about the lawsuit.

Rafael Escalera, whose San Juan law firm Lasa Escalera & Reichard has been retained to defend Casiano Communications, says the Star's complaints are without merit.

"We intend to defend Caribbean Business on all grounds, not the least of which is the First Amendment," he told E&P. "We stand by the truth of our assertions, and we think it's amazing that the Star -- which is supposed to be in favor of First Amendment rights -- is suing another newspaper on this matter, and is requesting a preliminary injunction which constitutes a gag order that prevents Caribbean Business from saying what it wants to say"

Yet Star lawyer Salvador Antonetti said the accusations printed in Caribbean Business, which claims a circulation of more than 40,000, are "not commentary, not opinions, but an advertisement" undeserving of First Amendment protection.

"Apart from that, we know it's not an honest mistake," he added. "It's a deliberate competitive position that Casiano has taken:"

According to the suit, which was filed in Spanish in accordance with Puerto Rican law, "the defendants' objective is to hurt the image, reputation and circulation of the Star, which is Puerto Rico's only English-language general-circulation newspaper, so Caribbean Business...can increase its circulation and number of ads, but, instead of improving the quality and quantity of their business coverage, the defendants are defaming their competitors:"

Lawsuits by newspapers against the government are fairly common here -- with the Star and Puerto Rico's two Spanish-language dailies, El Nuevo Dia and El Vocero, all having sued the Commonwealth at one time or another to get information from the government under the open-records law -- but a suit by one newspaper against another is extremely rare. …