Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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The Constitutional Court ruled that removing a student’s graduating honors in retaliation for her online criticism against the institution constituted a violation of her right to freedom of expression. Sara Herrera Bonifacio filed a constitutional action of amparo against the Santiago University of Technology after being deprived of honors due to comments she posted on a Facebook post. The Court reasoned that Bonifacio’s comments are protected under the freedom of expression principle since they do not violate the right to honor or privacy of any individual or institution. In addition, Bonifacio duly exercised her right to amparo by meeting the 60-day deadline of filing amparo after the university rejected to reconsider.
Sara Herrera Bonifacio studied Computer Engineering from 2009 to 2013 at the Dajabón campus of the Santiago University of Technology (UTESA) and achieved cum laude honors.
On September 23, 2013, Bonifacio commented on a Facebook post published by another student, Mildred Yanet Espinal Gómez. In her post, Gomez expressed her opinion on how a sick classmate was unable to register for classes and was denied enrollment for that academic period. In her comment, Bonifacio criticized the university’s decision by claiming that its information technology system was inflexible and that her campus’ authorities were afraid of making decisions that went against the central campus’ authorities. On September 25, 2013, Bonifacio posted another comment that reiterated the criticism.
Subsequently, on October 28, 2013, the Disciplinary Council of the university cancelled Bonifacio’s graduating academic honors by alleging that she intended to hack the university’s information technology system. On November 20, 2013, the university notified Bonifacio and her parents. On November 22 and 25, 2013, the parents, who were teachers at the university, wrote letters to the rector of the university, Príamo Arcadio Rodríguez Castillo, asking to reconsider the decision. The university’s board of directors of the Dajabón campus responded on July 10, 2014, and rejected the request for reconsideration.
On July 15, 2014, Bonifacio wrote a letter to Ligia Amada Melo de Cardona, the Minister of Higher Education for Science and Technology, explaining the situation. Consequently, on July 25, 2013, she filed a constitutional action of amparo against UTESA including the rector of the university, the director of the Dajabón campus, the Disciplinary Council, and the Technical Academic Committee. Bonifacio filed the lawsuit to protect her fundamental rights to education, freedom of expression, and due process as well as get the university to restore her honors.
On November 7, 2014, the Court of First Instance of the Judicial District of Dajabón, ruled in favor of Bonifacio. The court explained that she was practicing her right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 49 of the Constitution, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights. Furthermore, the court reasoned that Bonifacio’s comments did not surpass the constitutional limit of freedom of expression because she did not attack any individual’s honor, destroy the reputation of an individual or institution, interfere in anyone’s private life, nor did she humiliate anyone. The court emphasized that she criticized the actions of the university, not the private lives of individuals. In addition, she did not go against public order, nor did she attempt to hack the university’s information technology system. The court stated that the university failed to prove its allegations and that no student could be sanctioned for exercising the fundamental right of freedom of expression. The court concluded by declaring that the university violated Bonifacio’s fundamental rights and therefore, called upon the university to restore her academic honors and title.
The decision of the court was relayed to the university’s lawyer on November 17, 2014, who notified the school on November 20, 2014.
The university including the rector of UTESA, the director of the Dajabón campus, the Disciplinary Council, and the Technical Academic Committee filed a constitutional appeal against the court’s judgment on November 24, 2014. The university argued that the judge of the Court of First Instance of the Judicial District of Dajabón committed procedural errors by inaccurately interpreting the right to freedom of expression and for not assessing the statute of limitations of Bonifacio’s amparo action, which according to the university was not filed within the 60-day period. The university claimed that Bonifacio’s comments should not protected under the right to freedom of expression because it rewarded unlawful action and would lead to the “social decomposition” of the Dominican society. [pg. 10]
Moreover, the university claimed that Bonifacio failed to exhaust all remedies before seeking the amparo action. The amparo action requires the individual to prove that they exhausted all avenues to regain their rights before exercising the amparo action.
Bonifacio was notified of the appeal on December 1, 2014, and submitted her defense on December 4, 2014. In her statement, she requested the Constitutional Court dismiss the appeal due to a lack of explanatory grounds and constitutional relevance. She noted that the university did not provide any significant and special reasons for their appeal nor grievances.
The Constitutional Court addressed three issues. First, the Court had to determine if the appeal filed by UTESA met procedural requirements. Second, the Court had to decide if Bonifacio’s amparo action was duly exercised, which was contingent on whether her request for reconsideration was conducted in a timely matter. Finally, the Court was required to analyze if the freedom of expression and information principles were applied appropriately.
First, the Court determined that UTESA’s appeal complied with Article 95 and 96 of Law 137-11. The Court noted that the appeal was filed within a five-day period from the Court of First Instance of the Judicial District of Dajabón’s notification date, the appellant specified its grievances, and the appeal was constitutionally significant and relevant. Ultimately, the Court rejected Bonifacio’s claims and declared the appeal for review admissible.
Second, the Court declared that Bonifacio’s amparo action was duly exercised. She was notified of the cancellation of her honors on November 20, 2013, and her parents sent letters requesting the university to reconsider its decision on November 25, 2013. The Court reasoned that the university could have decided to not consider the parents’ letter since it was incorrectly addressed to Príamo Arcadio Rodríguez Castillo, who was not the rector at the time. Yet, the university responded to the letter and rejected it on July 10, 2014, signifying that they did acknowledge the content of the letter and the request for reconsideration. Hence, when Bonifacio was notified, she had no other way of enforcing her rights, leading her to file an action of amparo on July 25, 2014. The Court concluded that the July 25, 2014, date was within the 60-day period required by Article 70.2 of Law 137-11 to file an amparo action, since the university’s rejection renewed the period of action to start from July 10, 2014, and not November 20, 2013. In other words, the Court explained that the start of the 60-day period cannot be considered as November 20, 2013 because the university engaged in “continuous violations,” meaning that Bonifacio attempted to protect her rights and the university continued to deny them. Hence, there was no lack of diligence on Bonifacio’s part of meeting the deadline for the amparo action.
Finally, the Court determined that the first instance court applied the freedom of expression and information principles correctly. The Court cited Article 49 of the Constitution and Article 13 of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, and noted that the right to freedom of expression and information should be exercised while respecting the right to honor and privacy. The Court applied these rights to the context of social media networks. The rights to freedom of expression and information can be restricted on social media when comments include insults, obscenities, as well as “illogical and disproportionate information.”
In other words, the Court had to determine if Bonifacio’s comment restricted the fundamental rights of someone else by analyzing the content of the comments. The Court determined that Bonifacio’s comments, even if malicious, were not unlawful. Although her first comment mentioned the information technology system of the university, her second comment provided additional context, which showed that Bonifacio criticized the university’s rigidity. Taken together, the comments proved that she was not attempting to violate the university’s information technology system. Therefore, Bonifacio’s comments were not offensive or disproportionate.
The Court dismissed UTESA’s appeal for constitutional review, upheld the Court of First Instance of the Judicial District of Dajabón’s judgment, and affirmed Bonifacio’s amparo action. The Court determined that by cancelling her academic honors, the university violated Bonifacio’s fundamental right to freedom of expression. The Court ruled that the university was required to restore her academic honors.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The Constitutional Court affirmed the right to freedom of expression by ruling that the university’s disciplinary actions violated Bonifacio’s right to freedom of expression. The Court reiterated that when balancing freedom of expression against its potential violations of the rights of others, the context of the speech in question must be considered.
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