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Free exchange of ideas keeps gov’t responsible to people’s will

/ 12:03 AM March 11, 2015

I read with keen interest the reply (“Toward a healthy public debate,” Opinion, 1/28/15) of lawyer Raul C. Pangalangan, Inquirer publisher, to a reader’s letter titled “Freethinkers too few to deserve a space in the Inquirer” (Opinion, 1/27/15). Pangalangan dwelt on an interesting constitutional matter. As a student of Constitutional Law—a legal discipline that I have always been passionate about since my law school days—I could not help thinking aloud, articulating my own thoughts on the views expressed therein.

Pangalangan’s observation that the religious majority must not be allowed to drown out contrary views (referring to minority religions) is irrefutable. It is an eloquent recognition of the minority beliefs’ freedom of speech, protected by the Constitution alongside the freedom of religion which, according to the Supreme Court in a case, is best served by encouraging the free exchange of “dueling ideas.”

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In a larger sense, “dueling ideas” is a legitimate exercise of the freedom of expression which is regarded as the most potent instrument of public opinion. The stubborn reality is that the “dueling ideas” covered by the freedom of expression includes those that are acceptable and detestable or even hostile (Terminiello vs. City of Chicago, 337 US 1). Unanimity of opinion is not to be expected. That would be an anachronism of sorts under our democratic regime.

Paraphrasing the Supreme Court ruling in Iglesia ni Cristo vs. Court of Appeals (also cited in Pangalangan’s reply), the bedrock of freedom of religion, an essential ingredient of the freedom of expression, is best served by welcoming contrary views and opinions that engender diversity of ideas which, in the words of US Justice William Douglas, is one of the chief distinctions that set us apart from totalitarian regimes. In that regard, I always find comfort in US Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ apt observation that freedom of expression exists not so much for the thought that agrees with us as for the thought that we detest (US vs. Schwimmer, 279 US 644). In his vigorous dissent in Abrams vs. US (250 US 616), Holmes again wrote that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by a free trade in ideas—that the test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” It is this marketability of ideas that is distinguished by the tolerance for opinions and views that we loathe.

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Quite apropos is Voltaire’s immortal “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Free discussion, indeed, vitalizes our civil and political institutions. As US Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes put it, “It is only through free debate and free exchange of ideas that the government remains responsible to the will of the people.”

—BARTOLOME C. FERNANDEZ JR., retired senior commissioner, Commission on Audit, Makati City

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TAGS: debates, exchange of ideas, Government, Raul C. Pangalangan
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