Celdran's case: Freedom of speech vs religion

By Ira Pedrasa, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Jan 28 2013 06:51 PM | Updated as of Jan 29 2013 06:03 AM

MANILA (UPDATED) -- Tour guide and artist Carlos Celdran has gained fame anew -- or infamy, to some -- after receiving a guilty verdict based on what an international human rights group calls an “archaic” law.

The decision of a court finding him guilty beyond reasonable doubt for “offending religious beliefs” could again catapult Celdran into celebrity-dom, with hashtags in Twitter gaining ground such as #FreeCarlosCeldran.

In an interview with ANC, however, Celdran said the issue has become “bigger than me. It’s become about people being able to question authorities” whether they are from the Church.

He said his case resonates with Filipinos, who tackle everyday issues involving freedoms. He cited, for example, the controversial Anti-Cybercrime Prevention Act, which is now being questioned before the Supreme Court for supposedly unconstitutional provisions such as the imposition of libel on statements made online.

The issue of freedom of speech will again take forefront if he decides to bring his case before the Supreme Court.

Celdran was found guilty for violating Article 133 of the RPC, which imposes a penalty on someone “who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.”

In a decision dated December 14, Manila Metropolitan Trial Court Pairing Judge Juan O. Bermejo Jr., ordered Celdran’s imprisonment for two months and 21 days up to one year, one month and 11 days.

This was after Celdran pulled a stunt in the Manila Cathedral in September 2010 against the Church’s intervention in people’s access to reproductive health.

In 2010, Celdran used a placard with the word “Damaso,” a character from Jose Rizal's "Noli Me Tangere," and held it up in an ecumenical program during a Mass. Damaso, as many who have read the book know, is one of the most notorious characters in the novel, which touches on the abuses of the Spanish friars during the 19th century.

Celdran was garbed in the same outfit he used during his stunt when he went to the court for his verdict on Monday: The boisterous personality was Jose Rizal.

Types of freedom

Lawyer Marlon Manuel told ABS-CBNnews.com that he and his client are looking at different legal options to overturn the decision, with Celdran claiming he would not back down anytime now knowing he is right.

Manuel said the legal option could be in the form of an appeal before the regional trial court or a direct petition before the SC.

One thing is for sure, that despite the “beyond reasonable doubt” finding of the lower court, they will not avail of the “probation” option for such kinds of cases.

Probation would mean his crime record will be erased and he will only report once in a while before the court. He can also work as was usual, except he could not disrupt religious rites.

But by appealing, the probation option will now be out of his reach.

“Applying for probation is not a main option, as it will be the acceptance of a verdict,” Manuel insisted.

Celdran also said: “I’m not going to take this sitting down.”

Even the international group Human Rights Watch has taken the cudgels for Celdran, noting: “[The decision] is a setback for free speech in the Philippines, which prides itself on being a democracy. This verdict should be reversed. Nobody should be jailed for voicing out an opinion or position, especially on a subject that concerns the lives of millions of Filipino women and mothers.”

Stakeholders now know where the case is going: Which is more paramount, freedom of speech or religious freedom?

In several instances, the SC said freedom of expression is the foundation of all rights. Still, it has insisted over time that it has its limits.

In an oft repeated case in the US by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, he said a person’s freedom of speech has limits depending on the circumstances.

"The most stringent protection of free speech…would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic,” he had said.