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The genius that is free speech

In the end, freedom needs no logic, no reason. It is man’s fate, his ultimate destiny. There is no insurmountable barrier to this desire to be free. No dictator’s lash, no tyrant’s sword can halt this striving for it is man’s pre-determined purpose, entwined with every fiber in his being, a programmed culmination, the butterfly emerging from the cocoon, the sperm and the ovum becoming and the river flowing to the sea to become the sweet air we breathe. — National Artist F. Sionil José

 

For the fourth season of journalism lectures conducted annually by Southern Tagalog colleges and universities, I arrived in Lucban, Quezon last week as expected: my dire lack of sleep met by rains. Winds were biting cold. A thick mantle of fog had descended at the Batis Aramin Resort, something you don’t get to see in smog-covered Manila every day.

I arrived with fellow speakers UST’s chair of the Department of Literature and Humanities Dr. Joselito D. De Los Reyes, film director Rodolfo “Bayaw” Sabayton (who will deliver the keynote lecture), and Philippine Daily Inquirer chief of photographers Rem Zamora. This year’s theme is “Fake News and Ethical Journalism”.

The three-day 2018 Regional Higher Education Press Conference is an annual event composed of more than 25 colleges and universities found all over the Calabarzon region. It is attended by more than 700 campus journalists and editors, and their publication advisers. I was invited as a lecturer and representative of the Philippines Graphic.

As I settled down and waited for my turn to speak on Editorial and Opinion Writing, I opened my Facebook account. Last I checked, an online war was brewing. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), had revoked online news organization Rappler’s license to operate on grounds that it allegedly broke the law on foreign ownership.

While majority of the online exchanges revolved around whether Rappler did break the law or not, some government officials began raising the issue of limiting the Constitution’s provision on the right to free speech.

They said, without flinching, that free speech should be limited to the “exercise of responsible speech,” hinting that many in the journalism industry have abused their right to free expression.

In fact, there’s a move among lawmakers to change the wording of Article III, Section 4 of the Bill of Rights to “no law shall be passed abridging the exercise of responsible speech” [italics, mine].

Let’s mull on this for a moment.

Drawing the line between responsible speech and irresponsible speech, for me, is an attempt by government to pose as victims of abuse. It’s a long-drawn battle between critics and the powers-that-be, one that has been fought for decades not without consequence to both sides.

In many instances, the battle has been fierce, with journalists gunned down in the line of duty. Close to a hundred journalists had been killed since 1982, often for covering and publishing reports on politics, corruption, and illegal drugs. The current administration is no stranger to the rampage heaped on men and women of the newsroom.

This got me thinking: should there really be a distinction between responsible speech and irresponsible speech in the exercise of our right to free expression? If so, then why didn’t the framers of the Constitution say so in the drafting of the Bill of Rights?

I’d expect the framers to be more specific in the drafting of our rights, to say nothing of doing it on their own accord prior to final approval. For some reason, the provision in Article III, Section 4 sounds too universal, encompassing in its declaration:

“No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

Did the framers intend that for the right to free speech should have a broader spectrum and reach? How should we approach the genius that is free speech?

It dawned on me only later in the day that one can only understand the universality and specificity of the right to free speech and a free press within the purpose for which the Bill of Rights was drafted: as a limitation to government power.

Government has in its disposal a swathe of power, authority, and resources to fulfil its one and only duty: to serve its constituents. The source of that power, authority, and resources comes from the very people they swore to serve.

To keep matters in check, the people are given the one overarching power—the right to speak out fully and without hindrance—should government abuse its authority.

Apparently, for the framers of the Constitution, irresponsible and abusive governance deserve the kind of criticism that is firm, strong, and in some cases, even hostile if only to get the message across. Hostility begets hostility, and in the language of a democratic Constitution, such power must be met with equal power.

That power I speak of is our right to speak out and have redress of grievances.

In short, when you and your country are being led by the powers-that-be to perdition and slaughter, do you stop to think whether your cries for redress fall under responsible speech or irresponsible speech?

No, you kick, you rage, you scream. You fight for dear life—for yourself and your loved ones, and for the nation at large. You speak as your heart tells you to speak.

When your right to life is threatened, your right to speak freely should be full and without hindrance.

Tell me therefore, how government can pose as a victim of ‘irresponsible speech’ in the rage against its abuses? After all the power, authority, and resources granted to it by the people, must we stop to reconsider or edit what we have to say? Restrain our rage?

The framers of the Constitution were wise in assuming that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And because of this, they granted citizens their one and only power to disabuse themselves of government excesses: to call government out for the error of its ways.

Government, with all the power, authority and resources at its disposal, cannot pose as the victim of irresponsible criticism when they are guilty of irresponsible governance.

That’s what I said to the campus journalists of the Regional Higher Education Press Conference. G

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