The Conviction Of Carlos Celdran Raised A Cacophony of Discordant Voices!


carlos_celdran_damasoBlogs which pompously project themselves as libertarians and free speech advocates found a poster boy in the person of Mr. Carlos Celdran, who was recently convicted by Judge Juan Bermejo for violating Art. 133 of the Revised Penal Code,  aka, “acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.”

He was convicted beyond reasonable doubt after trespassing church properties on September 30, 2010 to promote his political message.

Advocates claimed that the decision has a “chilling effect” on press freedom, and in support of their position, they started tearing down the arguments of the trial judge and “pronounced” Mr. Celdran “not guilty.”

Oddly enough, GRP a blog I had not patronized but of which I regularly visit, shared with my view  that the case of Mr. Celdran must not be framed from “free speech exercise.”

In GRP’s blog, I wrote:

The case of Celdran must not be framed under the free-speech clause because in order to exercise it, you must have your own forum to vent your speech. You can use the public plaza for that. If you want to use a school auditorium, you must ask permission from the school first. If you want to use the pulpit or the church premises, you must ask the permission of the church first. Inside church premises, your speech that is anti-church cannot be tolerated. You were demanding an untramelled speech inside the premises that does not welcome it.

Put it in another scenario, Congress. Protesters there are allowed their free speech outside the premises. You cannot get inside the session hall and deliver your speech unless you are a member of congress itself.

The provision of the constitution is clear. “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech.” It is an invocation directed against State actors. The Church is not an agency of the State. It is an independent group operating outside the framework of what the constitution considers state actor.

However, those who sympathized with Mr. Celdran were relentless  in proving him innocent in the internet, and not through the court that processed him.  They argued:

  1. Free speech exercise trumps the right of the faithful for unmolested worship space;
  2. The phrase “notoriously offensive” is vague as to offend the due process clause of the constitution;
  3. The law, (Article 133) was archaic;
  4. The penalty of imprisonment was too harsh, it must be fine or community service only
  5. The narration of facts  in the decision of Judge Bermejo does not clearly show that Mr. Celdran committed a notoriously offensive conduct.

I have argued differently.

The Phrase”Notoriously Offensive To The Feelings of the Faithful” Is Not Vague:

There is a common law tort known in the U.S. as “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”  (IIED). To be liable, the act of the defendant must be “outrageously” offensive.  U.S. courts do not quibble about  the phrase “outrageously offensive” as being “vague,” as to deny defendant of his right to due process of law.  Somehow, courts believe that even in the absence of an ideal guardian angel,  they can find in a society “rational human beings” capable of putting the actual face on a behavior that qualifies as  “outrageously offensive.”    Though  IIED, is a tort law,  and Art. 133 is a criminal provision, the interpretation of both must be within the intent of the legislators or consistent with the common-law concepts developed through the ages. They never raised the issue that “outrageous conduct” is an unquantifiable variable, except perhaps if you were lawyering for the defendant, or for Mr. Celdran to dispute what is “notoriously offensive conduct.”  But so far, IIED is still a tort law in the U.S., and Art. 133 is still in our statute book.

The “reasonable person” standard is the default whenever the law needs an unbiased observer.  Or in “negligence cases” the fault is benchmarked using a “good father of a family” standard. But please take note that the Supreme Court in the case of People v. Baes, limited the “reasonable person standard” in interpreting Art. 133,  only to those persons professing the same faith. The interpretation was policy directional.  Imagine if a Catholic Church service had been mocked and we call an atheist to the witness stand who observed the whole event and ask him if he finds those acts “notoriously offensive.” Or vice versa, a mosque service had been mocked and we call a catholic witness.

So  if these bloggers are sticklers for the rule of law, they can unmask their pretensions now and show their bias as “non-believers,”  “atheists,” or “non-catholics,” because their input are irrelevant in the present discourse if you adhere to the Supreme Court ruling in the BAES case.

But even if we adhere to the dissenting opinion of Justice Jose P. Laurel in the Baes case, the phrase “notoriously offensive” is not an unknown variable.  He simply said that instead of  faith-based  determination of what constitutess “notoriously offensive,” conduct, it should be the court that should establish the criteria.  He did not argue that the phrase was “vague” as to offend the due process clause of the constitution.

 “I express the opinion that offense to religious feelings should not be made to  depend upon the more or less broad or narrow conception of any given particular religion, but should be gauged having in view the nature of the acts committed and after scrutiny of all the facts and circumstance which should be viewed through the mirror of an unbiased judicial criterion.” (Laurel dissenting opinion).

It is only in the Philippines where lawyers and non-lawyers alike, would put in their wisdom or lack of it to muddle the law than look at it in its pristine form— to promote harmony in a society and to enjoin everyone to respect others entitlement to a private space and right to worship.  The church despite its being able to allow almost anyone inside it, does not make it a “public place” in the contemplation of “free speech.” One who enters it, other than to worship, already violates the spirit of Art. 133.

Even if we admit that the acts of  Mr. Celdran  were  within the “free speech” clause, its exercise is limited by the doctrine of “clear and present danger doctrine,” the “laws on libel” and by “reasonable time, place manner regulation.”  You cannot demand for an untramelled speech in the middle of the road and create a traffic nightmare in the process. In the same manner that you cannot exercise your free speech inside the church.

 Art. 133 is a reasonable regulation as to “place.”  It is the same prohibition against one’s free speech to shout “fire” inside a theater packed with moviegoers.

There is no such thing as absolute and unfettered speech.

Vagueness and free speech having been addressed above, now let us go to other issues.

Accused during the time in question, wore a look-alike Rizal outfit and brought in a “Damaso” placard, the meaning of which he himself reiterated in his interview and in his  blog. Friar Damaso was a priest character in Rizal’s novel, Noli Me Tangere who was a rapist and an adulterer.  No other meaning can be deduced from his activity inside the church except to mock the prelates and make innuendos that they, like Friar Damaso, were rapists and adulterers who cannot meddle in the affairs of the State. There is no need to belabor the point that rape and adultery are against the tenet of the church.

Was Celdran’s Act Inside the Church On Sept. 30, 2010 Offensive?

 If there was any shortcoming in the decision of Judge Bermejo, it was only in style not in substance.  But the evidence on record is capable of parsing the message of Mr. Celdran and his acts as within the meaning proscribed in Art. 133.  It is like putting 4 spoonful of sugar in a cup of coffee and protest later that coffee was not sweet enough because you didn’t stir the mix inside.   The prosecution had put in 4 spoonful of evidence in judge Bermejo’s judicial cup of coffee, but the Judge despite not stirring it long enough, found the evidence in his cup, sweet enough to convict accused Mr. Celdran.  Those who tasted the same coffee and found it awfully bland must only stir the cup long enough. The evidence against the accused was already in that judicial cup.  They were introduced against him during the trial, and Judge Bermejo was satisfied that the evidence against him was beyond reasonable doubt even without “judicial embellishent” of his own.  He could have set-up the criteria himself as called for in the dissent of Justice Laurel, but he did not.

Rizal commentary was about a member of the Friar Church, Fr. Damaso, who raped and impregnated Pia Alba, a married woman and gave birth to Maria Clara, who became Ibarra’s sweetheart. Noli Me Tangere is an anti-clerical novel, but not  necessarily an anti-church, though the colonial church was anti-Rizal.  Rizal used a literary medium, his novel to paint his frustration and contempt against the friars, Mr. Celdran by tresspasing church properties.

The “Damaso” character should be taken in the colonial context where the Spanish friars lord over the civil government. In Rizal’s time there was no need for the church to cajole the civil government to promote its agenda; both the civil government and the church worked in tandem in the supervision, control and exploitation of the natives.  But Celdran’s antics went as far as attacking the local prelates as modern-day Fr. Damasos, when these two generations were 117 years apart and the religious flock have not seen in the modern-day church the extreme abuses of the old church.

Judge Bermejo considers the acts of Mr. Celdran offensive to the feelings of the faithful as narrated by the witnesses.   He was clear  that the Damaso placard was shoved in front of the prelates — the placard with vicious message that the prelates were rapists/adulterers too just like Fr. Damaso, though the judge did not elaborate on the meaning of the placard itself.

Is RHB An Issue of Catechism or Civics?

Now there is a separation of church and state.  Both are managed by domestic prelates and civil servants respectively. We have no more colonial overlords.

State and church separation however, is not like a tight compartment that can effectively filter and categorize a burning issue of the day as either purely “civics” or purely “catechism.”  Those who think otherwise are simply deluding themselves.

The church believes that RHB is a moral issue because it would flood our society with condoms and contraceptives that would corrupt the moral fiber of its flock.  The church wanted to be heard in this debate.   Mr. Celdran was wrong in his analysis that RHB is purely a civic issue and not a moral issue. Even assuming that the church was wrong in its submission on the morality implication of RHB, the wide spectrum of free speech allows not only correct speech but also erroneous speech.  Free speech also must be tolerant not only to that speech that supports ours, but also to that speech that is opposed to us.  Mr. Celdran would gag the prelates by “ad-hominem,” suggesting that they were hypocrites and adulterers like Fr. Damaso; therefore have no business to interfere in the business of the State.

The prelates had exercised their free speech against RHB using their pulpit, Mr. Celdran his support for it, by trespassing church properties.  Even ordinary people can spot the difference

Interestingly enough, those who opposed Mr. Celdran’s speech inside the church are now called “bigots.”

The Law Being Archaic And The Penalty Harsh

That the law is archaic and the punishment is too harsh are not the concerns of the court. These are issues for Congress.

Dura lex Sed Lex .. The law is hard, but that is the law!

13 thoughts on “The Conviction Of Carlos Celdran Raised A Cacophony of Discordant Voices!

  1. Very nice legal perspective. The notion of “free speech” is very emotional, and most of the freethinkers are not lawyers I guess. I couldn’t get worked up over the matter once I understood that Celdran, too, is a Catholic. So it was like one of the family acting up, the church family.The Church could discipline him. No need for the State to interfere. Especially on behalf of a tax-free family.

  2. I was going to post the below comment as a reply to you at Raissa’s blog, but the site was unavailable (down) from the time I tried to send it…around 0930 to 2000.
    It’s similar to Rene Ipil’s response, but a small fraction in length.

    jcc says: Feb 03, 2013 0419 (# 13.4 replies), titled… Ex Comelec Chair Christian

    Accused during the time in question, wore a look-alike Rizal outfit and brought in a “Damaso” placard, the meaning of which he himself reiterated in his interview and blog. Friar Damaso was a priest character in Rizal’s novel, Noli Me Tangere who was an adulterer and a hypocrite. No other meaning can be deduced from his activity inside the church except to mock the prelates and made innuendos that they, like Friar Damaso, were adulterers and hypocrites too. There is no need to belabor the point that “adultery” is against the tenet of the church.
    But the evidence on record, is capable of parsing the message of Celdran and his acts as within the meaning proscribed in Art. 133.

    How do we reconcile the beyond reasonable doubt proviso with the suggestion that the evidence on record is capable of parsing the message of Celdran indicating his guilt within the meaning proscribed in Art. 133. Wouldn’t it mean that conjecture is acceptable as evidence? I don/t know, but some lawyers might say, impertinent or hearsay??

    The good thing about this Celdran drama, is that people are made aware, and concerned individuals could find a time to challenge the constitutionality of this Art. 133 before the Supreme Court, imploring, that it abridges the freedom of speech.

    Peace brother.

    • Peace brother….. You can disagree with me on anything, that’s is free speech brother.

      Judge Bermejo already concluded that Celdran was guilty beyond reasonable doubt on the basis of the testimonies of 4 witnesses.

      What I mean by parsing is to look deeper on the meaning of Damaso placard and only in response to those who tried to parse that the decision’s narration of facts did not support a guilty verdict. That people can parse the narrative of Judge Bermejo and conclude that Celdran was not guilty, so can I, parse the evidence to arrive at the guilty verdict.

  3. //That the law is archaic and the punishment is too harsh are not the concerns of the court. These are issues for Congress.//

    Maybe the court can be lenient this time? Even 2 months imprisonment is waay too harsh. Celdran should just be allowed to give community service. You know, like sweeping the streets of Intramuros…with the words “I am Sisa” printed on a placard hanging on his neck🙂

  4. Encore! may your tribe increase! In all angles, legality aside, his action reeked of impropriety, disrespect of one’s right, sobrang kabastusan! For me, it is like tresspassing one’s home, then attacking the dignity of the owner in front of children. Those who charge it plain to exercise of free speech are hypocrites to the max!

  5. @ jcc…..The Celdran issue I think goes beyond Art. 133. of the RPC. I think the issue of Celdrans sensibility as a person was the key that triggered him to act the way he did to question the CBCP and the churches dominant role in Philipine politics. I must say it was heroic because as a people, we would not question authority. So when someone like Ninoy Aquino rises up to question the establishment, he is called “rebellious”.

    Now we have Celdran who isn’t a Ninoy by any means, have taken up a cause is sent to jail for raising an issue that he believes Philippine Catholic church hierarchy should not be involved in. I would also like to say that most Filipino catholic fatefuls do not know that the Holy See has nothing to do with Philippine catholism. It is an entirely autonomous body the Vatican calls “The Church of the Poor” on the occasion of the Vatican2 council meeting. Celdran may not know this aspect of Philippine catholism but I admire him in his fight to keep CBCP out of Philippine politics.

    • But he did not see the bigger picture that contraception/abortion is not purely a civic issue. It is a very moral issue of which the church has the institutional duty to condemn.

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