DOJ punishes Facebook felonies
Would you jail a 16-year-old girl for libel? Would you jail a 16-year-old girl for calling another girl “B-I-T-C-H,” “backstabber,” and “stupid f*ckin’ playin’ innocent” on Multiply.com? Our Court of Appeals and Department of Justice say yes.
This is the state of our law: Taking childish tantrums to social media can land a teen in Bilibid, alongside murderers, rapists, and Carlos Celdran. When Sen. Ed Angara sponsored a law to protect our data processing industry, he never imagined vindictive children would rank above China’s hackers and overzealous prosecutors.
In April 2008, Justine Dimaano aka Tatzmenot, then about 18, put up a Multiply post, “Meet MY backstabber FRIEND;p.” Notches below literary quality, it featured gems such as “I super frikin wanting to kill her and make her the frikin next assuming queen! :)),” “ang looser,” “how I wish na meron sxang balls so I cud kick it as hard as I can :)” and “I bet she doesn’t have real friends like me.”
The plot thickened when Tatzmenot’s friends chimed in with equally inane, childish insults. (One, “JRV,” was 16. She was later deemed to have acted with discernment when she invoked the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act.)
Celine Quanico, also about 18 then, recognized part of the post as her Yahoo Messenger chats with Tatzmenot, except her username was changed. Quanico read the cruel comments and found several details hinting at her identity, even though her name and Multiply username were not used.
The teenage drama was not as fleeting as most. By 2012, a court was weighing whether to issue warrants of arrest for Tatzmenot and her Multiply confederates in a criminal libel case—note, before the Cybercrime Law existed.
JRV asked the Court of Appeals to block the charges. It had limited grounds to stop a trial that had not even begun and properly declined. The charges were anchored on DOJ findings that the case was sufficiently strong, arguing with justifiable legal basis that taunts such as “B-I-T-C-H” and “looser” are potentially libelous and details in the taunts may have identified Quanico as the target even if she was not named. Note that the Court of Appeals resolved only whether the trial should proceed and a verdict is still far away, but the story of crime on Multiply was traumatic enough for teens in college.
Law must adapt to the Internet because it combines the carefree spontaneity of oral conversation with the permanence of writing. Before Multiply and Facebook, Tatzmenot and Celine_quanico might have had a screaming match in a playground and would have eventually returned to speaking terms after several weeks. The Internet, however, bears silent witness to every online indiscretion and every careless phrase. The judicial record of “Meet MY backstabber FRIEND;p” will forever form part of their Google footprints.
Those older than 35 may never understand growing up with the Internet. It has been a joy to see my younger cousins blossom into women in Instagram photos and Facebook event posters. I have seen their candid reactions to entering college, choosing organizations, meeting Ateneo accounting for the first time, and the possibility of a secret admirer. I have seen superficial fights—or what appear to be superficial fights, if one misreads the smiley overdose—and other Facebook exchanges that cause one’s IQ to drop with every post. Someday, they or their children will cringe and then laugh at the conversations of their teenage selves. With the written word liberated from its former formality, we realize that we do not need to take seriously what the Internet has made permanent.
Even free-speech advocates would hesitate to accuse the CA and DOJ of abuse. Free speech would be a hard sell, as Tatzmenot’s harsh messages barely convey ideas and are practically distilled ridicule. Nor is Celine_quanico a “public figure” arguably a fair subject of public comment, unlike Chris Lao or the Amalayer girl. One is left wondering how on earth an apparently correct application of law converted a teenage Multiply squabble into a potential jail term for a 16-year-old girl.
The Tatzmenot scandal emphasizes how archaic it is for libel to be punished with imprisonment. Sadly, moves in Congress to decriminalize libel have gained little traction despite the present outcry.
The case makes one cheer nudging the Supreme Court to excise libel from the Revised Penal Code. One begins to sympathize with how Prof. Harry Roque used the Cybercrime Law hearings as a platform to attack the real-world libel law, and no less than Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio outlined during the oral arguments how the circa-1930 libel criminal provision may contradict our post-Edsa Constitution. We also understand former Chief Justice Reynato Puno, who ordered that libel should be punished by fine and not imprisonment even if this was arguably beyond his power.
At the Internet’s dawn, I asked Ateneo’s Fr. Roque Ferriols, SJ, whether it would distort human relationships because its anonymity allows deception and impunity. He replied simply that there remains a person behind each Internet account, and we are free to use the Internet to deceive or to realize our full human potential.
Google reveals that the players on Tatzmenot’s stage finished college under criminal prosecution’s shadow; one is even an aspiring doktora. Hopefully, life has taught them what no law can: Technology changes, values do not.
Oscar Franklin Tan (Twitter @oscarfbtan) teaches constitutional law at the University of the East. Judge for yourself the Tatzmenot saga as told by our Court of Appeals at www. facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.