Published 16 November 2018, The Daily Tribune
Throughout her indefatigable fight for freedom of expression, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has always held the view that to be an advocate of such freedom, one must necessarily be a practitioner. She declares that this freedom can only be defended when one practices what one preaches. “When we speak out for our right to freedom of speech, we begin to exercise it. When we write about our right to freedom of expression, we begin to practice it. There can be no theoretical advocacy of these freedoms. There can only be practical, practicing advocacy.” The 1986 Constitutional Commission did precisely what she said when they included this freedom in the draft of our Constitution twenty-six years ago.
“No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.” (Const. art. III, sec. 4)
It could very well be argued that freedom of speech, of the press, and the right of peaceful assembly have been rendered superfluous by the express guarantee of the freedom of expression, which necessarily encompasses all three at the very least.
The fight for freedom of expression well predates the Martial Law days, and finds its roots in the Spanish colonial period during which Spain refused to recognize the right. It was not until 1900 that it was guaranteed to Filipinos by virtue of President William McKinley’s instruction to the Taft Commission. The text of this instruction, whose source was no less than the Federal Constitution of the United States, was faithfully reproduced in Section 3 of the Philippine Autonomy Act (Jones Law) (Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J. The 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines: A Commentary 232 (2009)).
All of the protections embodied in the Bill of Rights are important but freedom of expression should be accorded exalted status. It is the bedrock of nearly every other freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.
In Adiong v. COMELEC (G.R. No. 103956, March 31, 1992), the Supreme Court was faced with the issue of whether the COMELEC may prohibit the posting of decals and stickers on “mobile” places, public or private, and limit their location or publication to the authorized posting areas that it fixes. In nullifying the COMELEC’s resolution, the Supreme Court, citing Mutuc v. COMELEC, held that “the preferred freedom of expression calls all the more for the utmost respect when what may be curtailed is the dissemination of information to make more meaningful the equally vital right of suffrage.”
In Diocese of Bacolod v. COMELEC (G.R. No. 205728, January 21, 2015), the petitioners argued that COMELEC’s notice for the removal of the “TEAM PATAY” and “TEAM BUHAY” tarpaulins, which classified senatorial candidates according to their respective votes on the Reproductive Health (RH) Law, violate their fundamental right to freedom of expression. COMELEC, on the other hand, contended that the tarpaulins are election propaganda subject to their regulation pursuant to their mandate under Article IX-C, Section 4 of the Constitution. Thus, the assailed notice ordering their removal for being oversized are valid and constitutional. In granting the petition, the Supreme Court held that “this caricature, although not agreeable to some, is still protected speech. This is a form of speech hopeful of a quality of democracy that we should all deserve. It is protected as a fundamental and primordial right by our Constitution. The expression in the medium chosen by petitioners deserves our protection.”
Three decades after the ratification of the 1987 Constitution and even beyond, freedom of expression remains and will be always be a necessary condition for a strong and vibrant democracy. It has to be fought vigilantly, regardless of the cost.
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