SC's lone dissent: Leonen says online libel unconstitutional

By Edu Punay, The Philippine Star

Posted at Feb 24 2014 09:20 AM | Updated as of Feb 24 2014 05:20 PM

MANILA - Only Associate Justice Marvic Leonen voted for the decriminalization of libel online and in the Revised Penal Code when the Supreme Court (SC) deliberated on the constitutionality of the Cybercrime Law last week.

The SC’s youngest member dissented from the majority decision of 12 other justices declaring the libel provision in the Cybercrime Law as constitutional.

“Criminalizing libel contradicts our notions of a genuinely democratic society... The Constitution requires that libel... be struck down as infringing upon the guarantee of freedom of expression,” he said in his opinion.

Leonen, whom President Aquino named to the SC in November 2012, defined libel as an anachronistic tool that may have had its uses in older societies: a monkey wrench that will steal inspiration from the democratic mob.

“Given the statutory text, the history of the concept of criminal libel, and our Court’s experience with libel, I am of the view that its continued criminalization, especially in platforms using the Internet unqualifiedly produces a chilling effect that stifles our fundamental guarantees of free speech,” he said.

Leonen said the threat of being prosecuted for online libel under Republic Act No. 10175, the Cybercrime Law, stifles the dynamism of conversations in cyberspace.

“These conversations can be loose yet full of emotion,” he said.

“These can be analytical and the product of painstaking deliberation. Other conversations can just be exponential combinations of these forms that provide canisters to evolving ideas as people from different communities with varied identities and cultures come together to test their messages.”

Leonen, the only SC member to publicly and actively use social media sites, specifically Twitter, voted to grant the prayer in 15 consolidated petitions to strike down section 4 (c) (4) of the Cybercrime Law penalizing acts of libel as defined in the Revised Penal Code committed through a computer system.

All the other 12 justices present in voting agreed that the assailed provision is legal.

The SC ruled that cyber libel when imposed on “original author of the post” is constitutional, but that it is unconstitutional when those who simply receive the post and react to it are penalized.

Among the key provisions declared constitutional were the sections penalizing illegal access, data interference, cybersquatting, computer-related identity theft, cybersex, child pornography and allowing search and seizure of computer data.

Leonen also objected to the majority ruling on the cybersex provision as unconstitutional.

He believes the criminalization of cybersex under RA 10175 stifles speech, aggravates inequalities between genders and will only encrust the views of the powerful.

“Sexual expression can be titillating and engaging,” he said.