The P-word, according to SC
It is a pity that Philippine Supreme Court decisions are not read outside the legal profession. These decisions provide insight into human nature that can be mined endlessly by historians, poets, essayists and novelists. Tucked in the legalese are engaging story lines and situations that stretch all the way back to 1901, documenting the way justices of the Supreme Court have interpreted the law and the constitution prevailing at the time to resolve conflicts between people. If you look hard enough, you will find comments on the colorful language similar to the one often deployed by President Duterte against some sectors of the international community and his pet peeves.
On the afternoon of June 6, 1961, Rosauro Reyes, a disgruntled employee fired from the Navy Exchange in Sangley Point, Cavite, led a group of demonstrators outside the US Naval Base. They carried placards that read: “Agustin, mamatay ka;” “Frank do not be a common funk;” “Agustin, mamamatay ka rin”; “Agustin, Nolan for you;” [and some in Chabacano] “To, alla boss con Nolan;” “Agustin alla bos con Nolan;” “Agustin, dillega, el dia di quida rin bo chiquiting.”
The demonstrators blamed Agustin Hallare and Frank Nolan for the loss of their jobs. Hallare was spotted as he left the base and was pursued to his home by the demonstrators who drove around his house. Reyes held the gate of Hallare’s home and shouted: “Agustin, putang ina mo. Agustin, mawawala ka. Agustin lumabas ka, papatayin kita.” Hallare hid through this abuse till Reyes left.
On July 25, 1961 Hallare haled Reyes to court for grave oral defamation “with the intention to cause dishonor, discredit and contempt to the undersigned complainant, in the presence of and within hearing of several persons, did then and there, willfully, unlawfully and feloniously utter to the undersigned complainant the following insulting and serious defamatory remarks, to wit: ‘AGUSTIN, PUTANG INA MO,’ which if translated into English are as follows: ‘Agustin, your mother is a whore’.”
When the Supreme Court reviewed Reyes’ conviction for grave oral defamation it commented: “The charge of oral defamation stemmed from the utterance of the words, ‘Agustin, putang ina mo.’ This is a common enough expression in the dialect that is often employed, not really to slander but rather to express anger or displeasure. It is seldom, if ever, taken in its literal sense by the hearer, that is, as a reflection on the virtues of a mother. In the instant case, it should be viewed as part of the threats voiced by appellant against Agustin Hallare, evidently to make the same more emphatic.”
The above was cited in a later case. “On April 20, 1995, at about 8:00 p.m., Atty. Benjamin C. Escolango was conversing with his political leaders at the terrace of his house at Morong, Bataan, when [Rogelio Pader] appeared at the gate and shouted, “Putang ina mo, Atty. Escolango. Napakawalanghiya mo!” The latter was dumbfounded and embarrassed. At that time, Escolango was a candidate for vice mayor of Morong, Bataan, in the elections of May 8, 1995.”
To cut a long story short Pader was convicted of grave oral defamation on Oct. 30, 1997 and sentenced to an imprisonment of one-month and one day to one year, plus the payment of P20,000 in moral damages. The Court of Appeals reduced the prison sentence to four months and one day in May 1999.
The Supreme Court reviewed the case and further reduced the crime to slight oral defamation with a fine of P200 and court costs, citing Reyes vs. People, where the Court ruled that “the expression ‘putang ina mo’ is a common enough utterance in the dialect that is often employed, not really to slander but rather to express anger or displeasure. In fact, more often, it is just an expletive that punctuates one’s expression of profanity. We do not find it seriously insulting that after a previous incident involving his father, a drunk Rogelio Pader, on seeing Atty. Escolango, would utter words expressing anger. Obviously, the intention was to show his feelings of resentment and not necessarily to insult the latter. Being a candidate running for vice mayor, occasional gestures and words of disapproval or dislike of his person are not uncommon.”
While the Philippine Supreme Court ruled twice on the P-word in the context of oral defamation, the US Supreme Court has ruled on the F-word in the context of freedom of speech. In 1968, during the height of the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, Robert Cohen was brought to court for “offensive behavior” because he wore a jacket with the words “Fuck the Draft” to a California Court Room. The US Supreme Court Justice Harlan agreed with Cohen who asserted his First Amendment right to engage in non-threatening, non-disruptive political speech. Justice Harlan opined: “No individual actually or likely to be present could reasonably have regarded the words on appellant’s jacket as a direct personal insult.”
A friend suggested that putang ina without “mo” and “fuck” without “you” change the color of the expletives, making it less direct, more of an expression of displeasure rather than an insult. Legalese these may all be, but it shows how far our right to free speech can go before being punched in the nose or sued for free expression. Maybe the Department of Foreign Affairs and Malacañang press office can resort to Supreme Court decisions to contextualize the colorful language that punctuates the President’s speech.
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