Of Children and Freedoms

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“…[B]ut if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” [1]

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

The video of a Quezon City school saltutatorian’s speech has been making the internet rounds lately and has sparked a public outrage, especially since this involves a minor child and the issue of freedom of speech. The video shows the minor being interrupted during her speech by school officials of a parochial school for allegedly delivering a speech not approved by the school administration.

The same video became flooded with comments discussing freedom of speech and how the school allegedly curtailed this child’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom when they prevented her from finishing her graduation address. Very few discussed how the interruption negatively affects the child and her well-being, and how it could possibly be an act of child abuse.

Whatever the case may be, it is high time we re-evaluate two essential principles at play in the viral video, guaranteed to every single individual (including a child): the freedom of speech and of expression, and the “best interests of the child” principle.

Freedom of Speech

Section 4, Article III of the Bill of Rights of the 1987 Constitution, states, “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.” 

Supreme Court Justice Carpio in the case of Soriano vs Laguardia (MTRCB) [2] describes the clause as a guarantee against both prior restraint and subsequent punishment. It protects from any undue interference by the government the people’s right to freely speak their minds. The guarantee rests on the principle that freedom of expression is essential to a functioning democracy and suppression of expression leads to authoritarianism.

However, not all speech is protected.  The right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances. The US case of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire established that there are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which has never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem.  These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and those words which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. [3]

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by the Philippines, also recognizes a child’s freedom of expression. Article 13 of the Convention provides that children have the right to get and share information, as long as the information is not damaging to them or others. In exercising the right to freedom of expression, children have the responsibility to also respect the rights, freedoms and reputations of others. The freedom of expression includes the right to share information in any way they choose, including by talking, drawing or writing.

In the Philippine context, the test for limitations on freedom of expression is the clear and present danger rule – that words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that the lawmaker has a right to prevent. [4]

Following the definition of the clear and present danger rule, we now ask: “Did the contents of the child’s speech in the viral video contain proof of a clear and present danger of a substantive evil to public safety, public morals, public health, or any other legitimate public interest, to warrant the school’s censorship?”

After reading the full text of the supposed speech that the graduate was supposed to deliver and considering the context of its delivery, the speech is nowhere close to being libelous, defamatory, lewd, profane or obscene. There was no “danger” to speak of to justify the school’s act of preventing the child from uttering her sentiments. The undelivered speech contained a narrative of the struggles the student went through, how it changed and affected her, and how she plans to take on the future. But that’s just my opinion, and interpretations of a written text (or in this case, a speech) may be subjective.  

Best Interests of Children

The child, by reason of his mental and physical immaturity, needs special safeguard and care, including appropriate legal protection before as well as after birth. [5]

What is truly heart wrenching is not just the alleged curtailment of the child’s freedom of expression in the viral video, but the grim reality that institutions (like schools) we entrust children with for many years may have unknowingly cultivated a culture of child discrimination and abuse.

Republic Act No. 7610 or the Child Abuse Law recognizes the principle that the best interests of children shall be the paramount consideration in all actions concerning them, whether undertaken by public and private institutions. This law specifically combats acts prejudicial to any child’s development, including all forms of abuse, neglect, cruelty, exploitation and discrimination.

Sec. 3 (b) of the Child Abuse Law defines child abuse as the maltreatment (whether or not habitual) of the child, not just physically and sexually, but also psychologically and emotionally. Any act that debases, degrades and demeans the intrinsic worth and dignity of a child as a human being, whether done once or repeatedly over a period of time is child abuse.

To degrade a child’s dignity by pulling off a Kanye West can be considered a form of child abuse under RA 7610. What lesson did the school seek to impart when they stopped the child from finishing her speech, in front of hundreds of other children? Was the act of stopping the child in the middle of her speech and escorting her off the stage in the child’s best interests?

All of us, especially parents, guardians, teachers, school administrators or persons having care or custody of children, have a collective responsibility to protect children against all forms of abuse and discrimination. This is even a declared State policy provided under Sec. 2 of the Child Abuse Law.

The viral video is a stark reminder that we may not be exerting every effort to promote the best interests and welfare of children. This is no longer just a case of speech interruption – the case puts into question the power of institutions such as schools in ensuring and enhancing children’s opportunities for a useful and happy life. After witnessing acts like these proliferate in social media, are our institutions really capable of setting children up for global success?

[1] Dissenting opinion in U.S. v. Schwimmer,279 U.S. 644.
[2] Dissenting Opinion, G.R. No. 164785, March 15, 2010
[3] Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 62 Ct. 766, 86 L.Ed. 1031.
[4] Eastern Broasting Corporation v. Dans, Jr., 222 Phil. 151.
[5] Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child.

This post was originally published in UnliPH.com.