Freedom of Speech is Not Absolute

The College Editor’s Guild of the Philippines decried the suspension of four Quezon City Science High School students for their work on the blog, scientiaetvirtus.multiply.com.

The bloggers published a series of attacks on their principal, summarizing their moves as a lack of respect for someone who shows no respect. The blog’s content is abhorrent to any rational observer fully aware that these writers are minors — it is one thing to call for the head of an administrator, but it is another to call for her death.

Thus, the school administration moved to suspend four students whose names they did not disclose. They also shut down the two school papers, The Electron and Banyuhay. No surprise then that the CEGP condemn, “It is disturbing to learn that high school students, in their very young age, are being subjected to this kind of campus repression, their right to freedom of speech and expression undermined.”

Not so fast. I have several comments.

I cannot completely condemn what the QCSH administrators did for I do not know the extent of the four students’ involvement with the blog. Neither are we privy to the relationship of the blog with the school papers. Hence, it is impossible — at least based on what I’ve been reading in the media — to pass judgment. I hope the CEGP know more than I do, otherwise releasing such a statement would be irresponsible of them.

Nonetheless, I do not discredit the opposition to the QCSH administration either. Perhaps, all allegations in the blog are true. Their ruling may or may not be overkill. Either way, I will suspend judgment.

However, I am sure of several things.

That regardless of the veracity of the students’ claims, some punitive action is in order even if their principal is guilty. These students are minors. As a school, the QCSH is responsible for them and their actions. Exposing truth through journalism is one thing (and their blog is hardly journalism), but abjectly defaming another person is another. The school cannot tolerate such actions for doing so will ultimately reflect on them as educators. That doesn’t bode well for the parents, the alumni, their future students, and all those who have a stake in the school doing well.

I rather we form students who can constructively engage the truth, rather than resorting to wanton barbarism to get things done.

I am also certain, that if all the allegations against their principal are true, then justice must be served. Unfortunately, the blog does not provide a useful account of everything she has supposedly done wrong. Most of what they have written is juvenile ridicule with no clear line of protest nor solid plan of action. I see traces of a potential position paper, but emphasis on potential. I also wonder — what is happening on the faculty side? Reports have been eerily silent of how the rest of the QCHS reacts to all these, not that I expect the media, or the school admin for that matter, to disclose these details.

Hence, with all things being equal, let’s suppose that everything on the blog is true. There is a case to be made for the termination of the principal, but without a long, thorough administrative investigation which will ultimately decide her fate. There is also a case to be made for the students’ expulsion, or at the least, non-graduation provided that they positively identify the authors of the blog and these children are thoroughly investigated into as well.

Perhaps, there would be no discussion of these students’ suspension if the principal is subjected to administrative review. That would be fair and symmetrical, but without any signs (in the media, at least) of such review, then to some degree it’s possibly unfair and asymmetric. That explains the ire of some, but I rather we be sober and rational considering how little we really know. For if there is one lesson to be learned in all these, it is that freedom of speech is not absolute. There is such a thing as responsibility too.

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13 Comments

  1. Hi Sir. :))
    I’ve visited scientiaetvirtus.multiply.com and apparently the suspended students are not affiliated to it (According to the account user and a comment from one of the suspended students). Yeah. Sharing. :-j

  2. I noticed that too. Hence I have reservations about the school’s decision. But then again, we know that this isn’t the blog of the suspended students because of what? What the blog says? Can’t trust these things too easily now.

  3. The school must prove that those students are guilty. The students do not have to prove that they are innocents (that they do not own those blogs).

  4. We cannot of course pass judgment based on an incomplete account of the issues.

    But what is clear is that the students were supposed to have been suspended for 10 days starting tomorrow. Good thing, the DepEd intervened and exercised its powers of review after parents filed a complaint.

    It is well-established jurisprudence in the US and in the Philippines that students are entitled to free speech and free expression. The US Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Community School District held that students don’t leave their fundamental rights at school gates and the Philippine court has adopted this ruling in several instances.

    It would thus be quite problematic (for teaching and learning) and illegal if we make the thought “free speech is not absolute” the rule rather than the exception.

    In the case of the four Quezon City Science High School students, based on the account personally shared to me by one of them, there appeared to have been a blatant violation of fundamental due process rights in Dr. Sadsad’s quest to punish them for what they wrote in their blogs. (What the students wrote in their personal blogs may also be considered protected speech as they discussed relations between them and school officials and sought reforms for the common good.)

    The courts have ruled clearly when students’ free speech may be considered not absolute. In Tinker v. Des Moines, the court said: “The principal use to which the schools are dedicated is to accommodate students during prescribed hours for the purpose of certain types of activities. Among those activities is personal intercommunication among the students. This is not only an inevitable part of the process of attending school; it is also an important part of the educational process. A student’s rights, therefore, do not embrace merely the classroom hours. When he is in the cafeteria, or on the playing field, or on the campus during the authorized hours, he may express his opinions, even on controversial subjects like the conflict in Vietnam, if he does so without ‘materially and substantially interfer[ing] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school’ and without colliding with the rights of others. … But conduct by the student, in class or out of it, which for any reason whether it stems from time, place, or type of behavior materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is, of course, not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.”

    The Philippine court meanwhile says that “while the authority of educational institutions over the conduct of students must be recognized, it cannot go so far as to be violative of constitutional safeguards”.

    The saddest thing that could happen is when schools of learning hamper free thought in the guise of discipline, when dissent is criminalized and penalized, and when rights are always rendered inutile by violations masked as “limitations”.

  5. Indeed. The elephant in the room here is that we are speaking about blogs. The ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines would implicate that what students say in their blogs, insofar as they are lawfully enrolled in our institution, are our responsibility too.

    Students are free to criticize, of course. I too have received some of that directly on this blog from my very own students. I neither banned nor deleted those comments, and instead used them to be better.

    But where I draw the line is where they call for violent and unlawful acts against human beings — and I’m not talking about due process yet, just humanity. “Kill Sadsad” is hardly a criticism. It is a condemnation. And these are minors. It is rather irresponsible to let this pass, lest we end up with school shootings like those in the US which could have been avoided if teachers saw the MySpace page as not just another blog, but their responsibility.

    That’s my point. As an educator, I am all for freedom. My students will be the first to attest that I am the most liberal teacher around. But then, we must learn to be responsible and not act disingenuously behind the guise of freedom.

    This does not have to explained. For even in our own civil discourse, we cry for Gloria’s resignation and what else, but stop short of calling for her death. In the legal discourse we speak of libel, slander, plagiarism — reminders that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression does not make all acts immune. There are lines we don’t cross, and that is a simple lesson we’ve been learning since kindergarten when we were taught to play nice.

    That having been said, there is some reassurance knowing that their principal violated due process — perhaps she deserves all these and I hope that justice is served.

    Yet at the end of the day, I look at that blog and think — students can be better than this. And I’m not even speaking of discipline, but just simple human sense.

  6. I am a student of QCSHS and i’ve stumbled upon your blog. And i would like to clarify that the four students who were suspended have their own blogs in multiply.com that contained statements that condemn the administration (esp. the Principal, Dr. Sadsad) and the policies that they implement. The student’s wouldn’t be suspended if they did not have something to blog about.

  7. teachers of the concerned school are just so bias. in the philippines of your infomation, teachers like you are stupid not to know the law. there’s no such law that criminalized a person posting something violent or even libelous statements. you are all ignoramuses.

    your playing their future. feeling nang principal GOD sya. i find almost teachers in government schools mentally degraded. look at the brain since the last decade. the times speaks for itself.

    you told them there’s always a line nd the students crossed it. well yo’re wrong. how could you cross the line when there’s even no LINE AT ALL.! FREEDOM OF SPEECH IS ALWAYS ABSOLUTE. IT JUST HOW ONE TAKES IT. THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE BECAUSE LIFE IS ALWAYS A CYCLE!.

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