THE DIOCESE OF BACOLOD, REPRESENTED BY THE MOST REV. BISHOP VICENTE M. NAVARRA and THE BISHOP HIMSELF IN HIS PERSONAL CAPACITY, Petitioners,
COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS AND THE ELECTION OFFICER OF BACOLOD CITY, ATTY. MAVIL V. MAJARUCON, Respondents.
G.R. No. 205728 January 21, 2015
TOPIC: Right to expression, right to political speech, right to property
On February 21, 2013, petitioners posted two (2) tarpaulins within a private compound housing the San Sebastian Cathedral of Bacolod. Each tarpaulin was approximately six feet (6′) by ten feet (10′) in size. They were posted on the front walls of the cathedral within public view. The first tarpaulin contains the message “IBASURA RH Law” referring to the Reproductive Health Law of 2012 or Republic Act No. 10354. The second tarpaulin is the subject of the present case. This tarpaulin contains the heading “Conscience Vote” and lists candidates as either “(Anti-RH) Team Buhay” with a check mark, or “(Pro-RH) Team Patay” with an “X” mark. The electoral candidates were classified according to their vote on the adoption of Republic Act No. 10354, otherwise known as the RH Law. Those who voted for the passing of the law were classified by petitioners as comprising “Team Patay,” while those who voted against it form “Team Buhay.”
Respondents conceded that the tarpaulin was neither sponsored nor paid for by any candidate. Petitioners also conceded that the tarpaulin contains names ofcandidates for the 2013 elections, but not of politicians who helped in the passage of the RH Law but were not candidates for that election.
- Whether or not the size limitation and its reasonableness of the tarpaulin is a political question, hence not within the ambit of the Supreme Court’s power of review.
- Whether or not the petitioners violated the principle of exhaustion of administrative remedies as the case was not brought first before the COMELEC En Banc or any if its divisions.
- Whether or not COMELEC may regulate expressions made by private citizens.
- Whether or not the assailed notice and letter for the removal of the tarpaulin violated petitioners’ fundamental right to freedom of expression.
- Whether the order for removal of the tarpaulin is a content-based or content-neutral regulation.
- Whether or not there was violation of petitioners’ right to property.
- Whether or not the tarpaulin and its message are considered religious speech.
FIRST ISSUE: No.
The Court ruled that the present case does not call for the exercise of prudence or modesty. There is no political question. It can be acted upon by this court through the expanded jurisdiction granted to this court through Article VIII, Section 1 of the Constitution..
The concept of a political question never precludes judicial review when the act of a constitutional organ infringes upon a fundamental individual or collective right. Even assuming arguendo that the COMELEC did have the discretion to choose the manner of regulation of the tarpaulin in question, it cannot do so by abridging the fundamental right to expression.
Also the Court said that in our jurisdiction, the determination of whether an issue involves a truly political and non-justiciable question lies in the answer to the question of whether there are constitutionally imposed limits on powers or functions conferred upon political bodies. If there are, then our courts are duty-bound to examine whether the branch or instrumentality of the government properly acted within such limits.
A political question will not be considered justiciable if there are no constitutionally imposed limits on powers or functions conferred upon political bodies. Hence, the existence of constitutionally imposed limits justifies subjecting the official actions of the body to the scrutiny and review of this court.
In this case, the Bill of Rights gives the utmost deference to the right to free speech. Any instance that this right may be abridged demands judicial scrutiny. It does not fall squarely into any doubt that a political question brings.
SECOND ISSUE: No.
The Court held that the argument on exhaustion of administrative remedies is not proper in this case.
Despite the alleged non-exhaustion of administrative remedies, it is clear that the controversy is already ripe for adjudication. Ripeness is the “prerequisite that something had by then been accomplished or performed by either branch or in this case, organ of government before a court may come into the picture.”
Petitioners’ exercise of their right to speech, given the message and their medium, had understandable relevance especially during the elections. COMELEC’s letter threatening the filing of the election offense against petitioners is already an actionable infringement of this right. The impending threat of criminal litigation is enough to curtail petitioners’ speech.
In the context of this case, exhaustion of their administrative remedies as COMELEC suggested in their pleadings prolongs the violation of their freedom of speech.
THIRD ISSUE: No.
Respondents cite the Constitution, laws, and jurisprudence to support their position that they had the power to regulate the tarpaulin. However, the Court held that all of these provisions pertain to candidates and political parties. Petitioners are not candidates. Neither do they belong to any political party. COMELEC does not have the authority to regulate the enjoyment of the preferred right to freedom of expression exercised by a non-candidate in this case.
FOURTH ISSUE: Yes.
The Court held that every citizen’s expression with political consequences enjoys a high degree of protection.
Moreover, the respondent’s argument that the tarpaulin is election propaganda, being petitioners’ way of endorsing candidates who voted against the RH Law and rejecting those who voted for it, holds no water.
The Court held that while the tarpaulin may influence the success or failure of the named candidates and political parties, this does not necessarily mean it is election propaganda. The tarpaulin was not paid for or posted “in return for consideration” by any candidate, political party, or party-list group.
By interpreting the law, it is clear that personal opinions are not included, while sponsored messages are covered.
The content of the tarpaulin is a political speech
Political speech refers to speech “both intended and received as a contribution to public deliberation about some issue,” “fostering informed and civic minded deliberation.” On the other hand, commercial speech has been defined as speech that does “no more than propose a commercial transaction.” The expression resulting from the content of the tarpaulin is, however, definitely political speech.
FIFTH ISSUE: Content-based regulation.
Content-based restraint or censorship refers to restrictions “based on the subject matter of the utterance or speech.” In contrast, content-neutral regulation includes controls merely on the incidents of the speech such as time, place, or manner of the speech.
The Court held that the regulation involved at bar is content-based. The tarpaulin content is not easily divorced from the size of its medium.
Content-based regulation bears a heavy presumption of invalidity, and this court has used the clear and present danger rule as measure.
Under this rule, “the evil consequences sought to be prevented must be substantive, ‘extremely serious and the degree of imminence extremely high.’” “Only when the challenged act has overcome the clear and present danger rule will it pass constitutional muster, with the government having the burden of overcoming the presumed unconstitutionality.”
Even with the clear and present danger test, respondents failed to justify the regulation. There is no compelling and substantial state interest endangered by the posting of the tarpaulin as to justify curtailment of the right of freedom of expression. There is no reason for the state to minimize the right of non-candidate petitioners to post the tarpaulin in their private property. The size of the tarpaulin does not affect anyone else’s constitutional rights.
SIXTH ISSUE: Yes.
The Court held that even though the tarpaulin is readily seen by the public, the tarpaulin remains the private property of petitioners. Their right to use their property is likewise protected by the Constitution.
Any regulation, therefore, which operates as an effective confiscation of private property or constitutes an arbitrary or unreasonable infringement of property rights is void, because it is repugnant to the constitutional guaranties of due process and equal protection of the laws.
The Court in Adiong case held that a restriction that regulates where decals and stickers should be posted is “so broad that it encompasses even the citizen’s private property.” Consequently, it violates Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution which provides that no person shall be deprived of his property without due process of law.
SEVENTH ISSUE: No.
The Court held that the church doctrines relied upon by petitioners are not binding upon this court. The position of the Catholic religion in the Philippines as regards the RH Law does not suffice to qualify the posting by one of its members of a tarpaulin as religious speech solely on such basis. The enumeration of candidates on the face of the tarpaulin precludes any doubt as to its nature as speech with political consequences and not religious speech.
Doctrine of benevolent neutrality
With religion looked upon with benevolence and not hostility, benevolent neutrality allows accommodation of religion under certain circumstances. Accommodations are government policies that take religion specifically into account not to promote the government’s favored form of religion, but to allow individuals and groups to exercise their religion without hindrance. Their purpose or effect therefore is to remove a burden on, or facilitate the exercise of, a person’s or institution’s religion.
As Justice Brennan explained, the “government may take religion into account . . . to exempt, when possible, from generally applicable governmental regulation individuals whose religious beliefs and practices would otherwise thereby be infringed, or to create without state involvement an atmosphere in which voluntary religious exercise may flourish.”
A regulation is constitutional when:
- It has a secular legislative purpose;
- It neither advances nor inhibits religion; and
- It does not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.