Friday, September 22, 2006

The public interest standard in defemation cases

This may be difficult to believe, but the Philippine legal system accords greater accommodations in the matter of protecting free speech interests agasint defamation suits.
Based on Philippine jurisprudence, in defamation cases that involve political speech, the issue is not limited to the status of the plaintiff or complainant, but rather, as to whether or not the matter is one of public interest.
In the Philippines, courts look not only on the status of the plaintiff i.e. whether public official, public figure or private individual, in balancing free speech interests with the need to protect a person's reputation.
A recent decision by the Philippine Supreme Court walked the extra mile for the press by not only using the status-of-the-plaintiff standard, but also the "public interest" standard.
The Supreme Court has ruled that the issue also to be considered in defamation litigation, is whether or not the subject matter that led to the defamation case is one of which the public is interested.
In short, the question to be resolved in defemation cases is: Is it a matter of public concern?
This was the declaration of the Supreme Court in the case of Arturo Borjal versus Court of Appeals (1999).
This case involved a private individual who sued a columnist, the late Arturo Borjal, for defamation.
The Supreme Court in that case categorzied the suing plainitff as a public figure.
Being such, the matter had to be decided based on the actual malice standard.
The actual malice standard prohibits public officials and public figures from recovering damages for defamatory falsehood pertaninig to their official or public conduct, unless the they prove that the statement was made with actual malice, that is, with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was false.
But beyond this, the Supreme Court proceeded to declare that so long as the subject matter that led to the defamation case was a matter of public interest, the actual malice standard is applicable.
To quote the Supreme Court:
"But even assuming ex-gratia argumenti that private respondent, despite the position he occupied in the FNCLT, would not qualify as a public figure, it does not necessarily follow that he could not validly be made subject of a public comment even if he was not a public official or at least a public figure, for he could be as long as he was involved in a publc issue. If a matter is a subject of public or general interest, it cannot suddenly become less so merely because a private individual is involved or because in some sense the individual did not voluntarily choose to become involved. The public's primary interest is in the event; the public focus is on the conduct of the participant and the content, effect and significance of the conduct, not the participant's prior anonymity or notoriety."
Thus the issue to be resolved is not limited only as to who was involved, but "what" was involved.
The Arturo Borjal case, in effect ressurrected the rule in Rosenbloom versus Metro Media decided by the United States Supreme Court.
In Rosenbloom, the actual malice standard was applied by considering not the status of the suing plaintiff, but the interest the incident had upon the public.
Subsequent to the Rosenbloom decision, the United States Supreme Court underwent a re-thinking process and thought that there should not be a blanket application of the actual malice standard without looking into the status of the plaintiff.
That is why in the United States, a lesser requirement is need for plaintiffs who are neither public officials or public figures, before they can recover damages.
For instance, in the U.S., a private individual plainitff, i.e. not a public official or public figured, is required only to establish fault and falsity in order to recover damages for defamatory publications.
In effect, the Rosenbloom doctrine was set aside by the United States Supreme Court.
Yet, in the Philippines, the Supreme Court has validated the Rosenbloom doctrine and upheld the rule that the type of speech involved should be looked into in resolving libel suits.
Thus, on this score, Philippine jurisprudence has given more accomodation to constitutional value of political speech. In our jurisdiction, it is not just the status of the plaintiff which will determine the appropriate standard to be applied, but also the interest that the subject matter generates to the public at large.

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