Complainant, Maria Victoria G. Belo, a celebrated doctor in the Philippines, engaged in the specialized field of cosmetic surgery. On the other hand, respondent, Roberto “Argee” Guevarra, is the lawyer of a certain Ms. Josefina “Josie” Norcio (Norcio), who filed criminal cases against complainant for an allegedly botched surgical procedure on her buttocks in 2002 and 2005, purportedly causing infection and making her ill in 2009.
In 2009, respondent wrote a series of posts on his Facebook account, a popular online social networking site, insulting and verbally abusing complainant.
Asserting that his posts, written in vulgar and obscene language, were designed to inspire public hatred, and destroy her reputation, complainant lodged a complaint for disbarment against respondent before the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP).
While respondent never denied that he posted the purportedly vulgar and obscene remarks about complainant on his Facebook account, in defense, however, he invokes his right to privacy, asserting that the posts quoted by complainant were private remarks on his private account on Facebook, meant to be shared only with his circle of friends of which complainant was not a part. He also averred that he wrote the posts in the exercise of his freedom of speech.
Is respondent correct?
When the disbarment case reached the Supreme Court, it pronounced that his arguments are untenable.
The Supreme Court has these to say:
Before one can have an expectation of privacy in his or her online social networking activity – 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. This intention can materialize through the utilization of Facebook’s privacy tools. In other words, utilization of these privacy tools is the manifestation, in the cyber world, of the user’s invocation of his or her right to informational privacy.
Respondent has failed to offer evidence that he utilized any of the privacy tools or features of Facebook available to him to protect his posts, or that he restricted its privacy to a select few. Therefore, without any positive evidence to corroborate his statement that the subject posts, as well as the comments thereto, were visible only to him and his circle of friends, respondent’s statement is, at best, self-serving, thus deserving scant consideration.
The Court cannot also accept the argument that the subject remarks were written in the exercise of respondent’s freedom of speech and expression.
Time and again, it has been held that the freedom of speech and of expression, like all constitutional freedoms, is not absolute. While the freedom of expression and the right of speech and of the press are among the most protected rights in the Constitution, every person exercising them, is obliged to act with justice, give everyone his due, and observe honesty and good faith. As such, the constitutional right of freedom of expression may not be availed of to broadcast lies or half-truths, insult others, destroy their name or reputation or bring them into disrepute.
By posting the subject remarks on Facebook directed at complainant, respondent disregarded the fact that, as a lawyer, he is bound to observe proper decorum at all times, be it in his public or private life. He overlooked the fact that he must behave in a manner befitting of an officer of the court, that is, respectful, firm, and decent. Instead, he acted inappropriately and rudely; he used words unbecoming of an officer of the law, and conducted himself in an aggressive way by hurling insults and maligning complainant’s reputation.
That complainant is a public figure and/or a celebrity and therefore, a public personage who is exposed to criticism does not justify respondent’s disrespectful language. 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. In this case, respondent’s remarks against complainant breached the said walls, for which reason the former must be administratively sanctioned.
Respondent Atty. Roberto “Argee” C. Guevarra is found guilty of violation of Rules 7.03, 8.01, and 19.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. He is thereby suspended from the practice of law for a period of one (1) year.
(MARIA VICTORIA G. BELO-HENARES, Complainant, v. ATTY. ROBERTO “ARGEE” C. GUEVARRA, Respondent, A.C. No. 11394, December 01, 2016)