The President Can Sue You For Libel

The President Can Sue You For Libel

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The President Can Sue You For Libel

Lately we have seen several arrests being made against persons allegedly threatening the President. News reports tell us that those persons might be charged with grave threats and/or inciting to sedition. Those types of cases may be filed by the appropriate agencies other than the President. Whether or not those cases will prosper is another question.

Now, if you tried to play it safe and avoided threatening the life of the President so you just decided to bash or insult him, can and may the President personally file a complaint for libel against you?

In the case of Soliven vs Makasiar (G.R. No. 82585, 14 November 1988), the Supreme Court said that the President can sue anyone for libel. The effect however, and this may sound absurd, is that in order for the case to prosper in court, the President must testify in court.

So you can just imagine the highest ranking official of the land addressing the judge in court “Your Honor” and the trial lawyers “Sir“, “Madam“. And with the President’s usual ramblings, he might even be called to remain in order and to observe proper court decorum. If the defense lawyer is gutsy, he or she might even be objecting a lot. It would be very tense.

In Soliven, then President Corazon Aquino sued Philippine Star columnist Luis Beltran and his editor-in-chief Maximo Soliven due to an article written by Beltran wherein he stated that during a bloody coup attempt staged by military rebels in December 1989, Pres. Aquino hid under her bed. Pres. Aquino felt slighted by the article. To her, the article depicted her, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, as a coward. Such a depiction might result in the loss of trust and confidence in her by the military.

During trial, when the President took the witness stand, Judge Makasiar had to admonish her as she was not properly addressing the trial lawyer. This was live on television. So Pres. Aquino, had to address the trial lawyer “Sir” after every statement so as not to be admonished again by the court. If she refused to do so, she might risk being cited for contempt which might be an even bigger embarrassment. I believe the good judge was forced to do that (admonish her) so as to maintain the court’s reputation of impartiality.

Trial ended and Beltran was convicted. He was acquitted on appeal though and what was really funny was that the Court of Appeals in its Decision noted that Beltran may have very well depicted the President positively because hiding under the bed during a coup is not a sign of cowardice but was actually a sign of intelligent decision-making. The Court of Appeals decision was promulgated though when Cory was no longer President.

The President suing you of course comes with a hefty price for the President. For one, he will be waiving his immunity from suit as he will be submitting himself to the court’s jurisdiction. And under our rules, a person being sued (you) has the right to counter sue. Second, his supposed undivided attention for matters of national interest that are of utmost importance will be significantly impacted as he has to attend court hearings and other engagements relative to the suit. He cannot send someone to testify for him for that would render his complaint and that proxy’s testimony as hearsay. Third, it would also impact the President’s reputation as the move can be seen as petty. After all, as held in Yabut vs Ombudsman, public officials should not be onion-skinned.

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