Religious Speech or Indecent Speech?

On August 10, 2004, at around 10:00 p.m., petitioner Eliseo Soriano, as host of the program Ang Dating Daan, aired on UNTV 37, made the following remarks:

Lehitimong anak ng demonyo; sinungaling;

 Gago ka talaga Michael, masahol ka pa sa putang babae o di ba. Yung putang babae ang gumagana lang doon yung ibaba, [dito] kay Michael ang gumagana ang itaas, o di ba! O, masahol pa sa putang babae yan. Sabi ng lola ko masahol pa sa putang babae yan. Sobra ang kasinungalingan ng mga demonyong ito.

Two days later, several members of the Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC) filed affidavit complaints with the MTCRB. The MTRCB sent petitioner a notice of the hearing on August 16, 2004 in relation to the alleged use of some cuss words in the August 10, 2004 episode of Ang Dating Daan.

After a preliminary conference in which petitioner appeared, the MTRCB, by Order of August 16, 2004, preventively suspended the showing of Ang Dating Daan program for 20 days. The same order also set the case for preliminary investigation.

The following day, petitioner sought reconsideration of the preventive suspension order, praying that Chairperson Consoliza P. Laguardia and two other members of the adjudication board recuse themselves from hearing the case. Two days after, however, petitioner sought to withdraw his motion for reconsideration, followed by the filing with the Supreme Court of a petition for certiorari and prohibition, docketed as G.R. No. 164785, to nullify the preventive suspension order thus issued.

On September 27, 2004, in Adm. Case No. 01-04, the MTRCB issued a decision, disposing as follows:

WHEREFORE, in view of all the foregoing, a Decision is hereby rendered, finding respondent Soriano liable for his utterances and thereby imposing on him a penalty of three (3) months suspension from his program, “Ang Dating Daan”.

In resolving the petition for certiorari and prohibition, the Supreme Court ruled that: (1) the MTCRB has the power to issue a preventive suspension against the petitioner; (2) the preventive suspension order did not violate petitioner’s right to equal protection, his freedom of religion and his freedom of speech.

Preventive suspension

Petitioner argued that the preventive suspension imposed against him and the relevant IRR provision authorizing it are invalid inasmuch as PD 1986 does not expressly authorize the MTRCB to issue preventive suspension. The Supreme Court rejected this argument and ruled:

A perusal of the MTRCB’s basic mandate under PD 1986 reveals the possession by the agency of the authority, albeit impliedly, to issue the challenged order of preventive suspension. This authority stems naturally from, and is necessary for the exercise of, its power of regulation and supervision. . . The issuance of a preventive suspension comes well within the scope of the MTRCB’s authority and functions expressly set forth in PD 1986, more particularly under its Sec. 3(d), as quoted above, which empowers the MTRCB to “supervise, regulate, and grant, deny or cancel, permits for the x x x exhibition, and/or television broadcast of all motion pictures, television programs and publicity materials, to the end that no such pictures, programs and materials as are determined by the BOARD to be objectionable in accordance with paragraph (c) hereof shall be x x x exhibited and/or broadcast by television.

Equal protection

Petitioner also argued that the MTRCB denied him his right to the equal protection of the law, arguing that, owing to the preventive suspension order, he was unable to answer the criticisms coming from the INC ministers. The Supreme Court rejected this argument and ruled:

Petitioner’s position does not persuade. The equal protection clause demands that “all persons subject to legislation should be treated alike, under like circumstances and conditions both in the privileges conferred and liabilities imposed.” It guards against undue favor and individual privilege as well as hostile discrimination. Surely, petitioner cannot, under the premises, place himself in the same shoes as the INC ministers, who, for one, are not facing administrative complaints before the MTRCB. For another, he offers no proof that the said ministers, in their TV programs, use language similar to that which he used in his own, necessitating the MTRCB’s disciplinary action. If the immediate result of the preventive suspension order is that petitioner remains temporarily gagged and is unable to answer his critics, this does not become a deprivation of the equal protection guarantee. The Court need not belabor the fact that the circumstances of petitioner, as host of Ang Dating Daan, on one hand, and the INC ministers, as hosts of Ang Tamang Daan, on the other, are, within the purview of this case, simply too different to even consider whether or not there is a prima facie indication of oppressive inequality.

Freedom of Religion

Petitioner next injects the notion of religious freedom, submitting that what he uttered was religious speech, adding that words like “putang babae” were said in exercise of his religious freedom.

The Court is at a loss to understand how petitioner’s utterances in question can come within the pale of Sec. 5, Article III of the 1987 Constitution on religious freedom. . . There is nothing in petitioner’s statements subject of the complaints expressing any particular religious belief, nothing furthering his avowed evangelical mission. The fact that he came out with his statements in a televised bible exposition program does not automatically accord them the character of a religious discourse. Plain and simple insults directed at another person cannot be elevated to the status of religious speech. Even petitioner’s attempts to place his words in context show that he was moved by anger and the need to seek retribution, not by any religious conviction. His claim, assuming its veracity, that some INC ministers distorted his statements respecting amounts Ang Dating Daan owed to a TV station does not convert the foul language used in retaliation as religious speech. We cannot accept that petitioner made his statements in defense of his reputation and religion, as they constitute no intelligible defense or refutation of the alleged lies being spread by a rival religious group. They simply illustrate that petitioner had descended to the level of name-calling and foul-language discourse. Petitioner could have chosen to contradict and disprove his detractors, but opted for the low road.

Freedom of Speech

Petitioner urges the striking down of the decision suspending him from hosting Ang Dating Daan for three months on the main ground that the decision violates, apart from his religious freedom, his freedom of speech and expression.

The Court rules otherwise. It has been established in this jurisdiction that unprotected speech or low-value expression refers to libelous statements, obscenity or pornography, false or misleading advertisement, insulting or “fighting words”, i.e., those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of peace and expression endangering national security.

The Court finds that petitioner’s statement can be treated as obscene, at least with respect to the average child. Hence, it is, in that context, unprotected speech. . .

Even if we concede that petitioner’s remarks are not obscene but merely indecent speech, still the Court rules that petitioner cannot avail himself of the constitutional protection of free speech. Said statements were made in a medium easily accessible to children. With respect to the young minds, said utterances are to be treated as unprotected speech.

No doubt what petitioner said constitutes indecent or offensive utterances. . .

After a careful examination of the factual milieu and the arguments raised by petitioner in support of his claim to free speech, the Court rules that the government’s interest to protect and promote the interests and welfare of the children adequately buttresses the reasonable curtailment and valid restraint on petitioner’s prayer to continue as program host of Ang Dating Daan during the suspension period . . .

Eliseo F. Soriano vs. Ma. Consoliza P. Laguardia etc.,  G.R. No. 164785/G.R. No. 165636,  April 29, 2009.