CHAPTER FOUR: Press Freedom as a Constitutionally-Protected Right 1

The freedom of the press is a constitutionally-guaranteed right and is enshrined in Section 4 Article III which explicitly provides that “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."

This constitutional right is essentially a carry-over of similar provisions in earlier constitutions as the Constitutional Commission of 1987 deemed it necessary to preserve extant Philippine and American jurisprudence on this bill of right. A significant change though is the expansion of this right to include the phrase “of expression". [2] 

The constitutional right of free speech or expression was a novel concept when it was first introduced in the Philippines by the Second Philippine Commission (also known as the Taft Commission) in 1900. Bernas?

In recognizing the importance and sacredness of this right, Justice Malcolm duly commented in the case of United States v. Bustos [3] as follows:

“Turning to the pages of history, we state nothing new when we set down that freedom of speech as cherished in democratic countries was unknown in the Philippine Islands before 1900. A prime cause for revolt was consequently ready made. Jose Rizal in "Filipinas Despues de Cien Años" (The Philippines a Century Hence, pages 62 et seq.) describing "the reforms sine quibus non," which the Filipinos insist upon, said:"

The minister, who wants his reforms to be reforms, must begin by declaring the press in the Philippines free and by instituting Filipinos delegates.

The Filipino patriots in Spain, through the columns of "La Solidaridad" and by other means invariably in exposing the wants of the Filipino people demanded "liberty of the press, of cults, and associations." (See Mabini, La Revolucion Filipina.) The Malolos Constitution, the work of the Revolutionary Congress, in its Bill of Rights, zealously guarded freedom of speech and press and assembly and petition.

Mention is made of the foregoing data only to deduce the proposition that a reform so sacred to the people of these Islands and won at so dear a cost, should now be protected and carried forward as one would protect and preserve the covenant of liberty itself.

In general it can be said that the constitutional freedom of speech and expression, and of the press allows one to freely utter, say or publish one’s ideas or opinions without prior restraint, and to be protected against any subsequent responsibility for so doing as long as it does not violate the law, or injure someone’s character, reputation or business. [4] From a literal reading of the text it shows that the protection is a guarantee against government intervention.

It has been said that the terms speech and expression are all forms of utterances whether oral or written. [5] Additionally the term “expression" can be interpreted to cover expressions of opinion not made publicly. [6] On the other hand, the term “press" covers all kinds of publications and also television and radio as a form of mass media. [7] 

It is important to note that the freedom of expression is one of the preferred rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights. In a 1973 case [8] , Justice Felix Makasiar said:

“(1) In a democracy, the preservation and enhancement of the dignity and worth of the human personality is the central core as well as the cardinal article of faith of our civilization. The inviolable character of man as an individual must be "protected to the largest possible extent in his thoughts and in his beliefs as the citadel of his person."

(2) The Bill of Rights is designed to preserve the ideals of liberty, equality and security "against the assaults of opportunism, the expediency of the passing hour, the erosion of small encroachments, and the scorn and derision of those who have no patience with general principles."

In the pithy language of Mr. Justice Robert Jackson, the purpose of the Bill of Rights is to withdraw "certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's rights to life, liberty and property, to free speech, or free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections." Laski proclaimed that "the happiness of the individual, not the well-being of the State, was the criterion by which its behaviour was to be judged. His interests, not its power, set the limits to the authority it was entitled to exercise."

(3) The freedoms of expression and of assembly as well as the right to petition are included among the immunities reserved by the sovereign people, in the rhetorical aphorism of Justice Holmes, to protect the ideas that we abhor or hate more than the ideas we cherish; or as Socrates insinuated, not only to protect the minority who want to talk, but also to benefit the majority who refuse to listen. And as Justice Douglas cogently stresses it, the liberties of one are the liberties of all; and the liberties of one are not safe unless the liberties of all are protected.

(4) The rights of free expression, free assembly and petition, are not only civil rights but also political rights essential to man's enjoyment of his life, to his happiness and to his full and complete fulfillment. Thru these freedoms the citizens can participate not merely in the periodic establishment of the government through their suffrage but also in the administration of public affairs as well as in the discipline of abusive public officers. The citizen is accorded these rights so that he can appeal to the appropriate governmental officers or agencies for redress and protection as well as for the imposition of the lawful sanctions on erring public officers and employees.

(5) While the Bill of Rights also protects property rights, the primacy of human rights over property rights is recognized. Because these freedoms are "delicate and vulnerable, as well as supremely precious in our society" and the "threat of sanctions may deter their exercise almost as potently as the actual application of sanctions," they "need breathing space to survive," permitting government regulation only "with narrow specificity."

Property and property rights can be lost thru prescription; but human rights are imprescriptible. If human rights are extinguished by the passage of time, then the Bill of Rights is a useless attempt to limit the power of government and ceases to be an efficacious shield against the tyranny of officials, of majorities, of the influential and powerful, and of oligarchs — political, economic or otherwise.

In the hierarchy of civil liberties, the rights of free expression and of assembly occupy a preferred position as they are essential to the preservation and vitality of our civil and political institutions; and such priority "gives these liberties the sanctity and the sanction not permitting dubious intrusions."

The superiority of these freedoms over property rights is underscored by the fact that a mere reasonable or rational relation between the means employed by the law and its object or purpose — that the law is neither arbitrary nor discriminatory nor oppressive — would suffice to validate a law which restricts or impairs property rights. On the other hand, a constitutional or valid infringement of human rights requires a more stringent criterion, namely existence of a grave and immediate danger of a substantive evil which the State has the right to prevent. So it has been stressed in the main opinion of Mr. Justice Fernando in Gonzales vs. Comelec and reiterated by the writer of the opinion in Imbong vs. Ferrer. It should be added that Mr. Justice Barredo in Gonzales vs. Comelec, supra, like Justices Douglas, Black and Goldberg in N.Y. Times Co. vs. Sullivan, believes that the freedoms of speech and of the press as well as of peaceful assembly and of petition for redress of grievances are absolute when directed against public officials or "when exercised in relation to our right to choose the men and women by whom we shall be governed," even as Mr. Justice Castro relies on the balancing-of-interests test. Chief Justice Vinson is partial to the improbable danger rule formulated by Chief Judge Learned Hand, viz. — whether the gravity of the evil, discounted by its improbability, justifies such invasion of free expression as is necessary to avoid the danger."

Nonetheless, it must be noted that the exercise of this right is not absolute. [9] As one author said “it does not confer unbridled license to speak or publish without responsibility for every possible use of language. There are other societal values that press for protection" [10] , it means that it may be regulated by a valid exercise of police power.