I thought the day would never come when the University of the Philippines would ban a film, much less on the 40th anniversary of the declaration of martial law. And in the greatest irony and shame, the UP College of Law led the charge against the crude hack job titled “Innocence of Muslims.”
The reported events at UP Law were as bizarre as they are embarrassing. Its dean cancelled the announced public screening of the silly film, citing “security reasons,” a valid restriction on speech but only if they are concrete and imminent. A UP chancellor banned all public screenings until the film’s value could be determined, the very definition of censorship.
Indignant, the professor concerned announced that he would show the silly video in his constitutional law class at 6 p.m. on Sept. 21 and sue anyone infringing on his academic freedom. That day, “no film showing” signs were put up in UP Law. Later, rumors (but no official announcement) of a bomb threat circulated. Professors teaching that evening’s classes were asked to cancel.
The class (as well as Prof. Carina Laforteza’s brave tax class) proceeded uneventfully, and no bombers, terrorists, protesters or bishops arrived, only former UP president Francisco Nemenzo and former UP Law dean Raul Pangalangan. Nemenzo compared the screening to UP’s defiance of a ban by then President Fidel V. Ramos of a forum on East Timor. At the risk of their lives, the students learned that the film is utter garbage. Anticlimactically, the chancellor clarified the following day that classroom use was not banned, only public screenings.
The controversial nonevent is shocking given how vague bomb rumors and the discomfort of media attention made the great school betray its ideals where martial law failed to. It is more difficult to cry for rights when one feels personally affected, and Chris Lao provides another UP Law example. He had attempted to drive into a flooded street (to rush home to an unattended toddler, it turned out) and a news crew taped both his floating car and his knee-jerk protest that no one informed him how deep the floodwaters were. The video sparked thousands of harsh Internet comments, especially after it was revealed that he was a UP Law student and UP summa cum laude undergraduate.
I was shocked at how some UP Law peers had spontaneously proposed cyberlibel suits, the same peers who may be criticizing Sen. Tito Sotto today for his cyberlibel amendment. The cyberbullying of Chris is protected by free speech’s “public figure” doctrine. The Philippine version is broader than the United States’ and makes a person involved “in an issue of public interest” fair game for comment. As the person’s perceived character is immaterial, if Chris could have sued, then so could Robert Blair Carabuena, who was filmed assaulting a traffic enforcer. The defense of free speech includes the defense of inane, even cruel speech.
More broadly, one might be disappointed by comparisons between “Innocence of Muslims” and Mideo Cruz, who glued a penis on Jesus’ face to depict idolatry as part of his “blasphemous” work “Poleteismo.” President Aquino emphasized freedom of speech when he declined to ban the silly film. However, freedom of expression was never mentioned when it came to “Poleteismo.” Instead, the President told the Cultural Center of the Philippines board: “I am a Christian, and our country is composed of at least 85 percent Christians. Depicting Christ in an unflattering manner by anyone is wrong.” “Poleteismo” even sparked a congressional investigation, and the exhibit of which it was part was eventually closed by the CCP, citing security reasons. (Consider, too, the scant media attention given to a Catholic university’s ban on the hijab, invoking academic freedom in a dubious way against freedom of religion.)
Our democracy can learn a lot from the peaceful, dignified way Filipino Muslims are conveying their disgust. Just compare how even the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is outlining peaceful steps to how a self-righteous Catholic couple vandalized “Poleteismo,” and how a legal initiative against “Innocence of Muslims” is forming (albeit based on dubious doctrine) to how the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines sounded like it wanted to reimpose the Inquisition.
But why should one defend the right to speech one abhors? If one truly believes an idea is wrong, its definitive rejection will come only in the marketplace of ideas. Speech never heard cannot be credibly rejected.
Calls to ban the silly film might be perceived as fear that non-Muslims might actually take it seriously (and the same idea applies to Catholics and “Poleteismo”). If proponents’ opinion of society is so unfortunately low, the democratic answer is nevertheless to make their own movie celebrating the graceful arches and domes of the world’s great mosques and the rest of the beauty that Islam has contributed to human art and science. If this proves less convincing than a silly video made by a convicted fraudster, then this country has graver problems.
Take it from Chris “I should have been informed” Lao. Instead of filing cyberlibel suits, he and McCann Erickson produced a flood insurance viral video for the Bank of the Philippine Islands that ended, “Nature doesn’t inform you.” He then endorsed the Freedom of Information bill with “We should all be informed.”
McCann gave better constitutional law advice than UP lawyers. Perhaps it can make a better film, too.
Oscar Franklin Tan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former chair of UP Law’s Philippine Law Journal and is the president of the UP Alumni Association (Singapore).