SC scolds 4 lawyers, fines another for ‘homophobic’ FB posts
The Supreme Court has reprimanded four lawyers and imposed a fine on another for their homophobic comments on social media against judges and the LGBTQ+ community.
In a 26-page decision, the high court found Morgan Rosales Nicanor, Joseph Marion Peña Navarrete, Noel Antay Jr., Israel Calderon and Ernesto Tabujara III liable for violation of Rule 7.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility (CPR)—recently replaced by the Code of Professional Responsibility and Accountability—which governs the conduct of lawyers in the country.
Under CPR’s Rule 7.03, a lawyer must not engage in conduct that adversely reflects on his or her fitness to practice law, nor behave in a manner scandalous to the profession, whether in public or private life.
“[I]nappropriate, disrespectful and defamatory language of lawyers, even in the private sphere, are still within the Court’s disciplinary authority,” it said, adding that the right to privacy of lawyers is limited, especially when it comes to their social media accounts.
While the high court reprimanded Nicanor, Navarrete, Antay and Calderon, it imposed a P25,000 fine on Tabujara. It sternly warned all of them that a repeat offense will be penalized more severely.
The Supreme Court said that not only did Tabujara—“whose unapologizing stance, with no slightest hint of remorse” was found disturbing by the Court—violated the code, “but he did so in a reckless, wanton, and malevolent manner.”
“What made his infraction worse … is that Atty. Tabujara III made a sweeping statement about the mental fitness of judges and implied that homosexual judges have the same degree of immorality as those of corrupt judges,” the Supreme Court said.
According to the court, Antay initiated a Facebook thread with a post saying he had “just prosecuted and helped convict a member of the LGBTQ+ community for large-scale estafa.” He said the accused cursed him but the judge came to his defense.
This was followed by a comment from Tabujara, who asked if Antay was referring to the gay judge. He later remarked that the joke among lawyers was that, in a certain courthouse, “most judges in the second floor have mental illness, while mostly are gay and corrupt downstairs.”
The other lawyers also chimed in during the online conversation.
On June 29, 2021, the high court motu proprio resolved to require the five lawyers to show cause why no administrative charges should be filed against them for their social media posts.
The Supreme Court said it found the Facebook posts laced with homophobic undertones, with descriptions of the convict and the judge that were “uncalled for and have no context in the narrative, thus showing gender bias.”
“The posts also include statements that tend to propagate and enforce an unfair and harmful stereotype that are not representative of LGBTQ+ individuals,” said the court, adding: “There is no room for such stereotypes in conversations among lawyers.”
In its report and recommendation dated Aug. 31, 2022, the Office of the Bar Confidant recommended that the lawyers be admonished, saying that although no other names were mentioned, their comments “were made in a degrading and shameful manner,” and contrary to the duty of lawyers “to conduct themselves with the highest degree of propriety and decorum.”
Antay, the Supreme Court said, invoked his right to privacy, claiming that his social media account is locked and the contents thereof cannot be accessed by outsiders.
But the high court said restricting the privacy of one’s Facebook posts to “friends” only does not guarantee absolute protection from the prying eyes of other users.
“His excuse …. is a mere allegation at best. Allegations are not proof. Further, the fact that the exchanges leaked means that his social media account is not locked as he claims or that there is a rat amidst them,” the court explained.
Citing a 2016 case, the Supreme Court said it was clear “there can be no reasonable expectation of privacy as regards social media posts, regardless if the same are ‘locked,’ precisely because the access restriction settings in social media platforms do not absolutely bar other users from obtaining access to the same.”
The high court also stressed that members of the legal profession must respect the freedom of LGBTQ+ individuals to be themselves and express who they are. It reiterated that the Philippines adheres to the internationally recognized principle of nondiscrimination and equality.
Inappropriate, disrespectful, belligerent, or malicious language can be a source of criminal liability under the Safe Spaces Act, it said. “Gender-based sexual harassment—encompassing transphobic and homophobic slurs—in streets and public spaces as well as online, may warrant progressive penalties ranging from community service, fines and imprisonment.”