MANILA (UPDATE) — The Commission on Elections (Comelec) is under fire Wednesday after several videos of its enforcers dismantling campaign materials in private properties went viral on social media, with some describing the incidents as "trespassing" and suppression of free speech.
In a tweet, former Comelec commissioner Rowena Guanzon said that if Comelec-affiliated enforcers enter private properties without permission to take down campaign materials, it should be considered "trespassing."
During the day, Comelec's Oplan Baklas personnel dismantled some tarpaulins displayed at a Robredo-Pangilinan volunteers' center in Quezon City. Supporters of Robredo argued that the area is a private property, outside the jurisdiction of Comelec.
Election lawyer Emil Marañon criticized the Comelec's actions, even calling their enforcers "thugs."
"Entering private premises/spaces to retrieve posters is of course illegal without a search warrant. Comelec needs to police its ranks. Criminal and administrative cases should be filed against these thugs," Marañon said.
The lawyer added these incidents are "worrisome."
"The recurring reports of Comelec’s arbitrary and wanton removal of posters by private citizens in their private properties are worrisome. This is not only an election offense, but a clear suppression of the public’s right to free speech," Marañon added.
Another election lawyer Romulo Macalintal said Comelec should have given the private citizens some time to explain their side before taking down the allegedly violative campaign materials.
"Mali at labag sa saligang batas na basta na lamang binabaklas ng Comelec ang mga campaign materials na ito na hindi binibigyan ng pagkakataon na marinig muna ang panig ng mga nagpost ng nasabing campaign posters," said Macalintal.
In a press conference last Feb. 8, Comelec spokesman James Jimenez addressed the potential controversy, saying they have the authority to regulate campaign materials even in personal spaces.
"Our rule is that even if you're posting on private property, you cannot post in excess of the allowed sizes. You can post campaign materials in your personal property but you're still going to have to abide by the size requirement," Jimenez said.
Based on Comelec Resolution No. 10730 or the implementing rules and regulation (IRR) of the Fair Elections Act, campaign posters should comply with the allowable size of 2ft x 3ft.
WHAT THE SC SAID
Jimenez also cited the ruling of the Supreme Court (SC) on the case of Diocese of Bacolod vs Comelec, which set the jurisprudence on non-candidates putting up campaign propaganda.
In its ruling, the SC stated that "[r]egulation of election paraphernalia will still be constitutionally valid if it reaches into speech of persons who are not candidates... only if what is regulated is declarative speech that, taken as a whole, has for its principal object the endorsement of a candidate only... For this purpose, it will not matter whether the speech is made with or on private property."
According to Jimenez, this is the basis for their Oplan Baklas operations even in private properties.
"If the material has for its overall purpose simply the declaration of an endorsement of a candidate, then that can still be validly regulated. And so even though the Comelec allows the posting of [campaign] materials on private properties, it is still with the caveat that size requirements have to be adhered to," he said.
In a press conference Wednesday, Jimenez said those who feel aggrieved by Comelec's restrictions on campaign materials should just file a complaint.
"If anyone feels they have an action against Comelec, they must pursue that," he said.