COVID and the Constitution


    ‘Just as we cannot be passive in our efforts to keep out the novel coronavirus, we cannot be passive in our efforts to secure the blessings that a healthy divergence of opinion brings.’

    In half a month or so we will be marking five months since lockdown was first imposed on Metro Manila in the hopes that the spread of the novel Coronavirus could be stopped.
    The effort, it can be argued, has been futile. From an initial three cases, all involving mainlanders, we are now nearing the high end of 85,000 as forecast by UP experts. This has raised questions about the wisdom of another lockdown which is meant to keep the virus from finding hosts in whom it can breed and from whom it can spread.
    But because human nature and everything that springs from it requires interaction – from commerce and trade to simple friendships – the “solution” for one problem brings about new problems requiring other solutions.
    No high tech remote conferencing can ever take the place of real-time, real-life physical interaction.
    COVID-19 poses a serious threat to the health of our populace. It is, however, the exact opposite of another threat, this time to the health of our body politic.
    This second threat is the effort being undertaken by some quarters to “tone down” one’s right to speak, specifically to voice out an opinion contrary to what the powers-that-be hold.
    This effort comes in many forms, some subtle, some not so. An example of the former is when you are blocked from certain fora, nowadays usually online, where points of view are shared and discussed. By being blocked, your opinions are “killed”; at the same time those who no longer get to hear you are thereby insulated from your ideas
    An example of the not so subtle effort is when a public official files a complaint against a citizen, for posting criticism the former feels is at the very least undeserved.
    But this “threat” to the body politic is not only coming from those in power. In fact it is one that we all help to create. Whenever we choose to turn our backs on people – friends, even family – who hold a point of view so different from ours, and choose instead to only be within circles of people who share our points of view, we too pose a threat to our own society, without perhaps even knowing it!
    While we think that blocking out opinions or points of view we don’t wish to hear makes life easier for us, we also end up in echo chambers which may be the worst threat to democracy that the 21st Century may have spawned without intending to!
    You see, as humans none of us would know everything, see everything or would have the solution to every problem, so it is critical that our point of view is enriched by that of others. As a consequence, our point of view is enriched, whether or not it remains the same, is modified or is totally changed.
    This is all the more true for leaders, whose decisions could very well spell life or death for many others.
    And this is why the Constitution protects speech and the law and jurisprudence imposes the strictest restrictions on any legitimate limitation. Not only because of the fundamental nature of the right to speak but also because of the fundamental value of a differing opinion.
    So: while it is in the interest of our society that we all seek protection from being infected by COVID, the reverse is true about being infected by opinion contrary to our own. For a society to mature and for citizens to mature, there must be a conscious effort by you and me to protect this right and encourage the exercise of this freedom.
    Just as we cannot be passive in our efforts to keep out the novel coronavirus, we cannot be passive in our efforts to secure the blessings that a healthy divergence of opinion brings.
    As US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis opined in 1927:
    “The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people;… public discussion is a political duty, and … this should be a fundamental principle of the … government.”.