The 1964 ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan handed down by the United States Supreme Court has been the barometer used in defamation cases involving public officials in both jurisdictions.
The Philippine case that comes comparably close in circumnstances with that of the New York Times ruling is that of Rodolfo Vasquez versus Court of Appeals.
It is similar to the New York Times v. Sullivan ruling in the sense that the plaintiff is also a public official (a barangay official).
When the barangay official sued for criminal libel (note: New York Times case was a civil case), the Supreme Court ruled that it was incumbent upon the prosecution to prove actual malice, and failing such, no liability attached against the accused.
In any event, the Supreme Court took ocassion to apply the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan standard in this case.
Here is the digest of that case:
Rodolfo R. Vasquez v. Court of Appeals
G.R. No. 118971
September 15, 1999
Petitioner Rodolfo R. Vasquez is a resident of the Tondo Foreshore Area. Sometime in April 1986, he and some 37 families from the area went to see then National Housing Authority (NHA) General Manager Lito Atienza regarding their complaint against their Barangay Chairman, Jaime Olmedo, a public official. After their meeting with Atienza and other NHA officials, petitioner and his companions were met and interviewed by newspaper reporters at the NHA compound concerning their complaint. The next day, April 22, 1986, the following exerpts of the news article appeared in the newspaper Ang Tinig ng Masa. In the article, pulished were supposed allegations by Vasquez that (1) “nakipagsabwatan umano si Chairman Jaime Olmedo upang makamkam ang may 14 na lote ng lupa”; (2) ang mga lupa ay ilegal na patituluhan, nagawa ito ni Olmedo sa pakikipagsabwatan sa mga project manager at legal officers ng NHA; (3) kasangkot din umano si Olmedo sa mga ilegal na pasugalan sa naturang lugar at maging sa mga nakawan ng manok. x x x”
Based on the newspaper article, Olmedo filed a complaint for libel against petitioner alleging that the latter’s statements cast aspersions on him and damaged his reputation.
On May 28, 1992, the trial court rendered judgment finding petitioner guilty of libel and sentencing him to pay a fine of P1,000.00. On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed in toto. Hence, this petition for review.
Whether or not the atual malice standard in New York Times versus Sullivan is to be applied in prosecutions for criminal libel.
The standard of actual malice in New York Times versus Sullivan is to be applied in criminal prosecutions for libel.
For that matter, even if the defamatory statement is false, no liability can attach if it relates to official conduct, unless the public official concerned proves that the statement was made with actual malice — that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
In this case, the prosecution failed to prove not only that the charges made by petitioner were false but also that petitioner made them with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of whether they were false or not.
A rule placing on the accused the burden of showing the truth of allegations of official misconduct and/or good motives and justifiable ends for making such allegations would not only be contrary to Art. 361 of the Revised Penal Code. It would, above all, infringe on the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression.
Libel was used as a form of harassment:
Instead of the claim that petitioner was politically motivated in making the charges against complainant, it would appear that complainant filed this case to harass petitioner.
It is curious that the ones most obviously responsible for the publication of the allegedly offensive news report, namely, the editorial staff and the periodical itself, were not at all impleaded. The charge was leveled against the petitioner and, "curiouser" still, his clients who have nothing to do with the editorial policies of the newspaper.
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