The crucible of free speech
The test of a society’s commitment to freedom of expression lies in its defense of marginalized forms of speech. I say in class, free speech is for speech that you hate, not for speech that you like. The logic of the principle is simple: we don’t need to protect society’s treasured ideas and institutions—they pose no danger to us; we pose no danger to them. It is for those forms of expression that disturb, offend, and even anger us that we actually need freedom of expression, as these types of speech are those in danger of being suppressed if society were not serious enough about a democratic culture.
Freedom of speech applies to political speech as much as to artistic expression. This should be emphatically true in the case of the Philippines, because of Lino Brocka’s contribution to our present Constitution. During the deliberations in the Constitution Commission, the famed director apparently insisted on including the phrase “of expression” to the standard free speech clause to make it read: “no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press….”
The events of the past few days related to Mideo Cruz’s work exhibited by the CCP make me wonder about the strength of our society’s commitment to this basic freedom.
Here are the facts. Cruz is a recognized, multi-awarded artist who has shown his work here and abroad. His “Poleteismo” was previously shown in UP and Ateneo, with much less fanfare. The CCP decided to exhibit his work, along with others, to commemorate Rizal’s 150th birthdate.
Now his work has been taken down, his alma mater has disowned him, his credentials as an artist has been questioned and his person, vilified. The members of the CCP board, on the other hand, are being asked to resign, facing a criminal lawsuit by religious fanatics for purveying “immoral doctrines,” and about to be investigated by Congress. Curiously, President Aquino, Imelda Marcos, Juan Ponce Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada now belong to the same category of eminent moral guardians who disagree with the CCP.
It is exactly for this kind of situation that we need to defend freedom of expression and thus protect Cruz and the CCP.
First. It is a unique characteristic of art that it is at once self-defining and intractably subjective. What is art for one may be trash, vile, pornographic or crass to another. One of the traditional functions of art is to unsettle, disturb and even offend. If we had to subject the whole spectrum of artistic expression to the scrutiny of those who feel themselves qualified to be the supreme arbiters of morality, taste or propriety, I suspect many important works will soon find their way into the chopping block and their authors provided free lodgings in prison cells.
Second. The CCP’s decision to exhibit Cruz’s work is an exercise of discretion. We can criticize the exercise of that power, but we should recognize the CCP’s authority to wield it. That we should not subject that discretion to a religious veto is easy enough to understand when we realize that this country is a secular regime, at least according to our Constitution. Does the CCP have the discretion to exhibit religious art? Yes. Does the CCP have the discretion to exhibit irreligious art? Yes. This is really not that complicated.
Third. Cruz’ work may be offensive to some or even many, if not most, but the CCP certainly did not go out of its way to offend the public. So far as I know, this was a display no different from a regular exhibit and the CCP did not spend additional funds to publicize the event. In other words, it was not as if the CCP exerted extra effort to offend the feelings of subscribers to the Catholic faith—it simply hosted an event open to the public. The controversy erupted when very conservative Catholics brought their disagreement to the CCP and made a national issue out of it.
Fourth. The CCP’s exhibit of Cruz’s work was, by the nature of the work and place of its display, passive. “Poleteismo” was not a mobile middle finger flashed before unsuspecting Catholics. The exhibit was not advertised by the CCP on television, and so did not surprise any unwary viewer. Any person who wished to see the work had to make the effort to go to the CCP and visit the gallery where it was displayed. No one was compelled to look at the exhibit; and after the controversy broke, everyone going to the CCP already had notice of the potentially offensive character of Cruz’ work.
Given these facts, I don’t see how the CCP violated its duty to promote the arts. If at all, it should be congratulated for making a form of expression traditionally invisible to the public a subject of national conversation. Indeed, it is almost unimaginable for the Filipino public to select art as an item of conversation among the sizable buffet of subjects we talk, blog, tweet, and “fb” about. The amount of public meaning generated by Cruz’s work and the added value to the social activity of Philippine society by the controversy over his art makes it even more compelling for us to protect his expressive activity and defend the CCP.
Most of us do not realize that free speech is an equal opportunity offender. The capacity of ideas to ennoble and appall, uplift and debase, inspire and outrage should not threaten us but make us respect even more the value of protecting the marketplace of ideas. Commitment to freedom, after all, is just self-interest when you’re promoting it for your own ends. It only becomes a principle when we fight for it to protect someone else.
Florin T. Hilbay teaches Constitutional Law and Legal Theory at the UP College of Law. He is the director of the Institute of Government and Law Reform of the UP Law Center.
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