Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The Philippines Supreme Court upheld a ruling suspending the law license of an attorney for one year following Facebook remarks he posted containing defamatory statements about a cosmetic surgeon. The medical director of Belo Medical Group Inc., Maria Victoria G. Belo-Henares, had applied to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) to have Roberto Guevarra disbarred for the insulting and threatening remarks he posted on Facebook about her and her company. The IBP dismissed Guevarra’s defenses of privacy, fair criticism and freedom of speech. Upholding the IBP’s findings, the Court reasoned that even if Guevarra had used Facebook’s privacy tools to limit the dissemination of the remarks, this did not guarantee absolute protection. The Court also held that his defamatory statements overstepped the permissible boundaries of the right to freedom of expression and fair criticism since they were made with malice intending to insult and tarnish the reputation of Belo-Henares and her company.
In 2002 and 2005, Maria Victoria G. Belo-Henares (“Complainant), director of Belo Medical Group corporation, performed cosmetic surgery that allegedly harmed a patient. Thereafter, Roberto C. Guevarra (“Respondent),” a licensed attorney, brought criminal complaints against the Complainant on behalf of the patient. During the criminal actions, the Respondent engaged in a series of derogatory attacks directed at the Complainant and her company on social media. Through his personal Facebook profile, the Respondent posted dozens of sexually-charged insulting and abusive statements intended to discredit the Complainant’s professional reputation. The Respondent, who had some 2000 Facebook friends, threatened to “paralyze” the company, which at the time had 300 employees, and also threatened the Complainant with criminal conviction and sought to extort money from her.
In August 2013, the Commission on Bar Discipline (CBD), a branch of IBP, recommended that the Respondent be suspended from practising law for one year. It rejected his argument that the complaint violated his constitutional right to privacy, asserting that his remarks were only shared with his Facebook friends and did not include the Complainant. The Respondent also argued that the disciplinary action was in violation of his right to freedom of expression. He denied that his remarks were vulgar and abusive and were intended to inspire hatred towards the Complainant and her company and that he had attempted to extort money from her. He further asserted that the Complainant was a public figure and was therefore a valid subject for fair comment.
The Board of Governors of the Bar adopted the IBP-CBD’s report and recommendation, following which the Respondent moved for reconsideration, arguing that there was no specific act that could warrant a suspension of his law license. He also referred to a libel action brought against him by an employee of the Complainant’s company, which had been dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. In October 2015, the Board of Governors partially granted the Respondent’s motion, reducing his suspension to six months.
The Complainant later submitted her verified complaint to the Supreme Court of the Philippines.
Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court, with whom all four other presiding justices concurred.
The main issue for the Court was whether or not the Respondent was administratively liable based on the Complainant’s allegations. It first ruled that the Respondent’s defense of privacy in sharing his derogatory remarks on Facebook was “untenable.” The Court explained that in order to claim a reasonable expectation of privacy on social media, and in this case, Facebook, “it is first necessary that said user manifests the intention to keep certain posts private, through the employment of measures to prevent access thereto or to limit its visibility.” [p. 9] And such intention “can materialize in cyberspace through the utilization of Facebook’s privacy tools.” [p. 9] Here, the Court did not find any direct evidence that the Respondent had utilized any of the privacy tools or features of Facebook that would ensure his remarks were only visible to himself and his circle of friends. The Court further reasoned that even if the posts were only viewable by the Respondent’s friends, there was no assurance that they would be safeguarded within the confines of privacy, in part because any Facebook friend of the Respondent could independently share the posts on their page. “[R]estricting the privacy of one’s Facebook posts to “Friends” does not guarantee absolute protection from the prying eyes of another user who does not belong to one’s circle of friends,” the Court concluded. [p. 10]
The Court also rejected the Respondent’s claim that the impugned remarks were within the exercise of his right to freedom of expression. It reiterated that the constitutional freedom is not “absolute” and every person exercising the right is “obliged to act with justice, give everyone his due, and observe honesty and good faith.” [p. 11] The Court also noted that the constitutional protection of the right “may not be availed of to broadcast lies or half-truths, insult others, destroy their name or reputation or bring them into disrepute” [p. 11] In this case, the Court found that the Facebook remarks “were ostensibly made with malice tending to insult and tarnish the reputation of complainant and [her company].” [p. 11]
The Court further dismissed the Respondent’s justification that his remarks amounted to fair criticism of the Complainant as a public figure. The Court said, “it is the cardinal condition of all criticism that it shall be bona fide, and shall not spill over the walls of decency and propriety,” and in this case, the Respondent’s remarks breached the said walls.” [p. 12]
Based on the foregoing analysis, the Supreme Court of the Philippines found the Respondent “in complete and utter violation” of the Code of Professional Responsibility. It accordingly imposed the original one-year suspension and “sternly warned” the Respondent that he would face more severe consequences if he repeated the same or similar acts.
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The Court reiterated the importance of the constitutional to right to freedom of expression, but dismissed this as a defense because the right is not absolute and must be exercised in good faith.
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