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Aquino big bully?

The utter lack of outcry regarding the criminal charges against President Aquino’s 19-year-old heckler highlights the fact that Filipinos have no concept of rights. Each curtailment of rights robs, not an individual, but each of us of something fundamental.

The President was speaking on Independence Day in Naga City when Ateneo de Naga student Pio Emmanuel Mijares shouted, “Out with the pork barrel king! There is no change in the Philippines!” He waved a banner with a message that read: “Oust P-Noy and Free Benito Tiamzon and all political prisoners and scrap all forms of pork! DAP, Ibasura.” He now faces a short jail term.

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Mijares’ message was unimpressive. Far from being a paragon of scintillating brilliance, it was a disjointed hodgepodge of flavor-of-the-month complaints. Many would roll their eyes and dismiss him as yet another “utak pulbura” who protests no matter who the president is. That the protest was trite, however, is exactly why we should protect it. Speech that is popular and welcome needs no protection.

ThePOC.net’s Jego Ragragio raised the textbook counter that authorities may prescribe a speech’s time, manner and place to prevent disruption, and that they in fact prevented rallying militant groups in Naga’s city center from approaching the President’s venue. This is legalese for Mijares should have respected the Independence Day event led by no less than the President and put up his own stage.

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This is precisely the counter against Carlos Celdran. In 2010, he dressed up in Rizal-era costume and entered the Manila Cathedral with his “Damaso” placard to protest the Catholic Church’s involvement in politics, disrupting an ecumenical service. He is currently appealing his conviction for “offending religious feelings,” a crime committed by “anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony, shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.” The weakness of attacking this crime on grounds of free speech is that laws may

reasonably punish disturbances in places of worship, along with hospitals and schools. Thus, Celdran haters likewise insist that he had all the right in the world to wave his placard outside the cathedral. (I suggested Celdran raise the simpler defense that the decision convicting him never explained what Catholic doctrine he ridiculed to offend along religious and not political lines. “Celdran jailed for offending political feelings,” 1/31/2013)

The rebuttal, however, is that the crime of “offending religious feelings” must be unconstitutional today because it punishes only speech criticizing religious doctrine, but not speech that praises it. Had Celdran entered screaming “I love Jesus,” he would never have been arrested no matter how disruptive he was. This 1930 crime is inherently viewpoint-biased and impermissibly hijacks our courts as archaic censors, and we realize that it will always be the speech and not the disruption that is punished. Likewise, Mijares would never have been arrested had he instead screamed “I love Kris Aquino!” Thus, such troublemakers must be tolerated because the possibility of selective prosecution against them in the guise of maintaining order is a far greater evil.

But even without reenacting a human rights class, the scene should have immediately struck lawyer and nonlawyer alike as unfortunate. Imagine our President—our Commander in chief who marshals the illimitable hosts of our state, our great voice in foreign affairs, and our living embodiment of our nation’s hopes and dreams—summoning all his omnipotence to smite a 19-year-old student armed with a piece of cloth. Doubly ironic, this scene played out on our Independence Day and with an Aquino, no less.

Militants alluded to Archimedes Trajano, a Mapua student leader found dead during martial law after criticizing a Marcos family member at a university forum. The Inquirer’s Boying Pimentel posted a YouTube clip of US President Barack Obama answering a heckler with a smile and exclaiming, “We have free speech in this country!”—to the audience’s applause. Even the charges seem overkill. Mijares and his cloth banner face imprisonment for “tumults and disturbance of public orders,” violated by anyone who causes “any serious disturbance in a public place,” and for assaulting a policeman, allegedly by resisting arrest and tearing his uniform. (Mijares, in turn, accused that policeman of stuffing his banner in his mouth.)

Malacañang spokesperson Abigail Valte argued that it was local police and not presidential security who charged Mijares, but this is beside the point. I expected someone like Mr. Aquino, who has inspired young voters such as Mijares with his integrity and simplicity, to laugh off the disturbance or even offer Mijares a job to challenge him to try running the government instead of criticizing it.

The more one disapproves of a Celdran or a Mijares, the more one must defend their freedom of speech, lest the day come when one feels the need to speak and is left with an emasculated right. If a student heckler is ever arrested again, we must shake off our apathy with the quote in Washington DC’s Holocaust Museum: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.

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“Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Oscar Franklin Tan (@oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan) cochairs the Philippine Bar Association Committee on Constitutional Law and teaches at the University of the East.

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TAGS: Ateneo de Naga, Benigno Aquino III, Commentary, opinion, Oscar Franklin Tan, Pio Emmanuel Mijares
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