MANILA — Some supporters of Vice President Leni Robredo on Tuesday urged the Supreme Court (SC) to stop the Commission on Elections (Comelec) from implementing its controversial “Oplan Baklas” campaign in private properties.
The petition also asked the high court to declare certain provisions of Comelec Resolution No. 10730, which implements the Fair and Elections Act (RA 9006), as unconstitutional.
“Private citizens have now proactively cast themselves and their private property as vessels of personal expression of political preference and in the process enhanced and redefined the ideals of people empowerment and volunteerism,” the petition said.
“Unjustified intrusions, therefore, especially by those tasked to uphold the sovereign will, must be tempered if not subdued,” it added.
The petition was filed by the St. Anthony College of Roxas City, Inc. and two self-proclaimed Robredo supporters — Dr. Pilita De Jesus Liceralde, one of the convenors of Isabela for Leni, and Dr. Anton Mari Hao Lim, one of the convenors of Zamboanguenos for Leni.
The petition described the two groups as “informal organization of volunteer private citizens.”
All petioners claimed they are owners of tarpaulins, posters, murals and other election materials displayed in their private properties which were removed by Comelec personnel because of Oplan Baklas.
Oplan Baklas forcibly dismantles and removes tarpaulins, posters and murals even in private properties, if they go beyond the Comelec’s restrictions on the size of the material.
Section 21 of Comelec Resolution 10730 limits the size of the posters to 2 feet by 3 feet while there should only be 1 signboard for the headquarters which should be no more than 3 feet by 8 feet in size, under section 24.
Section 26 of the same resolution authorizes Comelec to immediately remove, destroy or confiscate the prohibited propaganda material.
Petitioners challenged the application of these provisions on tarpaulins and posters put up by private citizens within the confines of their private properties.
They argued that neither the Fair Elections Act nor Comelec Resolution 10730 applies to private citizens.
“The COMELEC Resolution No. 10730 was promulgated to implement the Fair Election Act in connection with the 2022 Elections. A review of this law, however, would reveal that the COMELEC's regulatory powers on the posting of election propaganda only apply to political parties, party-list groups, and bona fide candidates,” they said.
“Further reading of COMELEC Resolution No. 10730 shows that regulation of election propaganda applies only to bona fide candidates and political parties and provide no guidelines for private persons and non-candidates,” they added, citing section 6 on lawful election propaganda which only mentions the words candidates and parties.
Comelec had earlier said they wanted to level the playing field among candidates.
The poll body also pointed to a 2015 Supreme Court ruling, Diocese of Bacolod vs. Comelec, which supposedly ruled Comelec can regulate posters in private properties if these posters amount to a declarative speech that is principally meant to endorse a candidate. Those that supposedly espouse advocacies are not covered by Comelec regulations.
But petitioners said the same case was clear — a law is needed specifically applying the regulations to private citizens and on private properties.
“Our position is that private citizens, when they express who they want to vote for, is part of their advocacy, because again the person who is running, is not simply a person. That person personifies a lot of things and aspirations by many of the citizens,” petitioners’ lawyer, Ray Paolo Santiago of the Ateneo Human Rights Center, told reporters following the filing of the petition.
“It could be for good governance, it could be on anti-corruption, it could be on peace and order, but aren’t these advocacies that we as private citizens would like to push forward and this is the best time to push forward for these advocacies and expressing the kind of candidates we want to put into office, especially now during election period,” he explained.
Petitioners also relied on the Diocese of Bacolod case to claim violation of their freedom of speech and expression.
“‘Political speech enjoys preferred protection within our constitutional order’ and that ‘[s]overeignty resides in the people; thus ‘[p]olitical speech is a direct exercise of the sovereignty,’” they said, quoting a portion of the ruling.
“The ‘oversized’ tarpaulins and posters that were ordered and caused to be taken down by Public Respondents were not paid for by any candidate or political party. They are private properties of Petitioners. By imposing size restrictions on these tarpaulins and posters and by taking them down and confiscating them, Public Respondents are not only unlawfully encroaching on one’s private property but also infringing on the fundamental freedom of expression of the Petitioners,’ they added.
Petitioners also invoked their right to property supposedly denied by the Comelec without due process when its personnel forcibly took down and confiscated their posters without notice and hearing and without their consent.
Citing the cases of Adiong vs. Comelec (1992), where the posting of decals and stickers on cars, tricycles and other moving vehicles was allowed, and 1-Utak vs. Comelec, where posting of election campaign materialson vehicles for public transport or on transport terminals was also allowed, petitioners said the posting is both an act of ownership and of political expression.
“The Court in the case of 1-UTAK v. COMELEC has recognized the use of property as a medium of political discussion as a valid exercise of ownership. The unlawful confiscation, destruction, and taking of such property is a violation of Petitioners’ constitutionally protected right to political speech,” they said.
Oplan Baklas has generated backlash particularly among supporters of Robredo who openly acknowledge that they print tarpaulins and post posters at their own expense, as volunteers of Robredo’s people’s campaign.
They have complained of their tarpaulins being targeted by Comelec personnel, compared to those of other candidates.
But the poll body has denied targetting Robredo supporters and has since said they will amend their guidelines to ensure written consent is secured first before campaign materials are removed.