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Editorial

Free speech protects Carlos and Mocha

/ 05:16 AM August 11, 2018

Both Carlos Celdran and Mocha Uson have something in common: the ability to call attention to themselves and the causes they espouse, even as, in the process, they end up offending more than a few people.

They are even both caught in the middle of a current controversy over public propriety, free speech and offending sensibilities.

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In Celdran’s case, his offense, as the Supreme Court put it in a decision affirming the finding of a lower court, was “offending religious feelings,” that he meant to “mock, insult and ridicule those clergy whose beliefs and principles were diametrically opposed to his own.” Celdran’s offense lay in his act (in 2010) of interrupting an ecumenical service at the Manila Cathedral. Clad in a suit reminiscent of Jose Rizal, Celdran strode up to the altar and held up a board with a single word: “Damaso,” followed by a shouted tirade, after which he was escorted out of the premises.

The reason for Celdran’s actions, as he explained later, was to express indignation at the bishops’ continuing opposition to the then still-pending Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health bill. But what seems to have really caused offense was the word “Damaso,” the name of a friar character in Rizal’s novel “Noli Me Tangere” who was portrayed as “arrogant and pedantic… a shameless loudmouth… unafraid of slandering nonreligious citizens who he thinks undermine his power.”

Uson, an assistant secretary at the Presidential Communications Operations Office, had long been notorious for her rather aggressive tactics in attacking perceived enemies and critics of President Duterte, as well as for her many gaffes in social media. But she really riled a good number of citizens, including government officials, with her latest post meant to promote public understanding of the issue of federalism.

She may have meant to “popularize” federalism, a word and concept still unfamiliar to the majority. But in asking an associate to perform a lewd dance to promote the idea of this style of governance, she raised the hackles of many who felt that she was not only trivializing the issue, but even sexualizing it and offending women at the same time.

The consequences for Celdran and Uson are not symmetrical, though. Celdran faces imprisonment from between two months and 21 days, and one year, one month and 11 days. His lawyers say they will appeal the Supreme Court decision on grounds that the law under which he has been convicted is “unconstitutional.”

So far, Uson remains unscathed—and unapologetic. She has even issued a video challenging her critics among the senators. This, even as Harold Clavite, the head of the Philippine Information Agency which is also under the PCOO, has gone public with his demand that Uson take a leave of absence for the “seeming insult to our profession in communication and public information,” which was also “degrading to women and mothers in our communities.” President Duterte, on the other hand, remains “cool,” according to the Palace, despite the ruckus that Uson raised.

Supporters of both Celdran and Uson are hard put to fix their opinions on both these cases. If people rush to the defense of Celdran, citing his right to express indignation at the stance of the bishops who he felt were standing in the way of Filipinos’ enjoyment of their reproductive rights, then shouldn’t the same defense be accorded to Uson in employing social media to “explain” a political issue, even as some might take umbrage at her use of sexually-tinged humor?

Free speech confirms the same blanket of protection on anyone regardless of affiliation. Offending some or many is not a crime—although, as a government official, Uson, it would seem, has breached the code of ethics she vowed to uphold.

It must also be said that her top boss, no less than the President, has committed many of the same (or worse) offenses of which she’s accused. The Supreme Court and the public may need reminding that President Duterte has likewise “offended religious sensibilities” when he called God “stupid” and mocked Catholic beliefs. Can’t the bishops or a group of Catholics or Christians find the same outrage they employed so harshly against Celdran? The waters should be tested with such a case.

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TAGS: Celdran, free speech, Jose Rizal, Uson
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