Public figure doctrine

In this digital age, information can spread like wildfire, leaving a trail of publicity — whether uninvited or desired — in its wake.

The Philippine Constitution expressly upholds the right to free speech. However, this right is not absolute. The Supreme Court has ruled that defamatory statements are unprotected speech, as “any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.” (Philippine Journalists Inc. vs Thoenen, 477 SCRA at 492, citing Chaplinsky vs New Hampshire)
Defamation — which includes libel and slander — means the offense of injuring a person’s character, fame or reputation through false and malicious statements. It is that which tends to injure reputation or to diminish the esteem, respect, good will or confidence in the person, or to excite derogatory feelings or opinions about him/her. (MVRS Publications vs Islamic Da’wah Council of the Philippines, 396 SCRA at 211, 2003)

The laws against defamation weigh two competing values against each other, namely, the “fundamental right to freedom of speech on one hand, and the state’s interest to protect persons against the harmful conduct of others.” (Disini Jr. vs Secretary of Justice, 723 SCRA 109, 133-138, 2014)

This premise becomes difficult to navigate when we talk about public figures. These may involve people who either seek the limelight, or are unwittingly thrown into the lions’ den of public scrutiny.
Who is a public figure under the law?

The Supreme Court has defined a public figure as a person who, by his accomplishments, fame, or mode of living, or by adopting a profession or calling, which gives the public a legitimate interest in his doings, his affairs, and his character, has become a “public personage.” He is, in other words, a celebrity. He/she is anyone who has arrived at a position where public attention is focused upon him as a person. (Ayer Productions Pty. Ltd. vs Capulong, 160 SCRA 861, 874, 1988)

Our laws on defamation are tilted against public figures, who have to pass the actual malice standard in order to hold their detractors liable for defamation.

There is “actual malice,” or malice in fact, when the offender makes the defamatory statement with the knowledge that it is false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. The reckless disregard standard used here requires a high degree of awareness of probable falsity. (Disini Jr. vs The Secretary of Justice, 727 Phil. 28, at 112, 2014)

While it is difficult for public figures to succeed in filing cases for defamation, by no means are they denied of the means for the vindication of their rights. A person who becomes a public figure, by choice or by fate, does not lose his or her right to preserve his or her own good name and reputation. The enjoyment of a private reputation is as much a constitutional right as the possession of life, liberty or property.

As stated in the Book of Proverbs, “(a) good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” (Proverbs 22:1)


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