By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
SunStar Cebu and SunStar Superbalita
The presidential spokesman’s arguments against SB#1680 may not fly. But the proposal may be assailed for its being vague as a penal provision.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque was accused by Sen. Grace Poe of protecting government officials and employees who engage in spreading fake news.
True to his reputation as defender of human rights and free speech before he took the Malacañang job, Roque is defending the freedom of the likes of blogger Mocha Uson to peddle fake news while on government pay.
Sen. Grace Poe, chairperson of the Senate committee on public information and mass media, is the author of Senate Bill #1680 that would require public officials and employees “not to publish or disseminate false news or information in their personal or official capacities” and would penalize the violation.
The bill seeks to amend the Code of Conduct & Ethical Standards for Public Officials & Employees (Republic Act #6713) so as to include circulating fake news among the prohibited acts.
Not waiting for Sen. Joel Villanueva’s bill on fake news (SB1492), Poe is targeting those in government, “especially those tasked to disseminate information.” Which include herself and other lawmakers.
While the public hearings were held by Poe’s committee, Roque last Feb. 10 publicly criticized the bill, saying it is “presumed unconstitutional” because:
◘ The prohibition is “content-based”; and
◘ It violates the equal-protection clause of the Constitution.
Four areas are covered by free speech, the Supreme Court tells us: 1. freedom from prior restraint, 2. freedom from punishment after publication, 3. freedom of access to information, and 4. freedom of circulation.
Not prior restraint
Under Poe’s bill, government people are not prohibited from speaking or writing “on any platform,” the media covered by SB#1680. They are only prohibited from publishing false news or information.
The same thing lawmakers did about libel and obscenity. One is not banned from writing or speaking but is held responsible for what he writes or speaks in public.
And Roque is not raising among his objections “prior restraint,” which involves censorship by government authority or stopping publication by court order.
Roque objects to “content-based” prohibition. Obviously, he focuses on freedom from punishment after publication. That aspect of free press and speech however is widely accepted to be not absolute.
But would the Supreme Court find adequate the tendency of the news or information to “erode the reliable accuracy and truth being accorded by the public to the government,” which Poe’s bill lays down as gauge of the falsehood? Roque’s assault aims at the basis for prohibiting false news as content.
Punished in RPC
Art. 154 of the Revised Penal Code of 1930 punishes among others any “false news which may endanger the public order or cause damage or interest to the state.”
The standard of falsehood is even broader than the measure in Poe’s proposal.
And the RPC false-information provision, along with its prohibitions on defamation and obscenity, has not been struck down as unconstitutional through the code’s 88 years of statutory existence.
Class by themselves
How about Roque’s argument that SB#1680 violates the Constitution’s equal-protection clause? What the right requires is plain: Congress can classify people and things provided there’s reasonable basis and shall treat those belonging to the same class equally.
Government officials and employees are a class by themselves. They are held to a higher standard, Poe said. The law regulating their conduct for them attests to that: prohibited acts in R.A. 6713, their code of behavior, apply only to them and not to private individuals.
Poe’s bill would punish government workers spreading false news because falsehood would sap public trust in the state of they are a part. Poe finds it bizarre for a public official like PCOO’s Mocha Uson, writing in her official or personal capacity, to use false news in her propaganda.
Roque would’ve better chances of shooting down the proposed bill by arguing that SB #1860 is vague in defining fake news. Poe’s bill gives the dictionary definition of “information” but not what “false information” is.
A definition that merely cites its effect is unclear and may not pass the constitutional test, especially that it is a penal provision. Like in Senator Villanueva’s SB#1492 on fake news, the poor, overworked judge is left to figure it out.
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