The Supreme Court en banc, in an 11-4 vote, upheld the three-month suspension imposed by the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board on the TV program Ang Dating Daan, aired on UNTV 37, after its host, petitioner Eliseo S. Soriano, was found to have uttered offensive and obscene remarks during its August 10, 2004 broadcast.
The majority, in a consolidated decision, speaking through Justice Presbitero J. Velasco, Jr., held that the suspension is not a prior restraint, but rather a “form of permissible administrative sanction or subsequent punishment.” In affirming the power of the MTRCB to issue an order of suspension, the majority said that “it is a sanction that the MTRCB may validly impose under its charter without running afoul of the free speech clause.”
The suspension order stemmed from a complaint filed by members of the Iglesia ni Cristo, including INC minister and regular host of the TV program Ang Tamang Daan Michael Sandoval who felt alluded to when petitioner Soriano uttered the following statements in his TV program –
Lehitimong anak ng demonyo[!] Sinungaling [!]
Gago ka talaga[,] Michael[!] [M]asahol ka pa sa putang babae[,] o di ba[?] [‘]Yung putang babae[,] ang gumagana lang doon[,] [‘]yung ibaba, dito kay Michael[,] ang gumagana ang itaas, o di ba? O, masahol pa sa putang babae [‘]yan. Sobra ang kasinungalingan ng mga demonyong ito.
The MTRCB initially slapped Soriano’s Ang Dating Daan, which was earlier given a “G” rating for general viewership, with a 20-day preventive suspension after a preliminary conference. Later, in a decision, it found him liable for his utterances, and was imposed a three-month suspension from his TV program Ang Dating Daan.
Soriano challenged the powers of the MTRCB to issue a preliminary suspension but the Court said that “a perusal of the MTRCB’s basic mandate under PD 1986 reveals the possession by the agency of the authority, albeit impliedly, to issue the challenged order of preventive suspension.” Soriano also attacked the suspension on the grounds of lack of hearing but the Court said “preventive suspension can validly be meted out even without a hearing” since it is “merely a preliminary step in an administrative investigation.”
The High Court also said that Soriano’s “statement can be treated as obscene, at least with respect to the average child,” and thus his utterances cannot be considered as protected speech. Citing decisions from the US Supreme Court, the High Court said that the analysis should be “context based” and found the utterances to be obscene after considering the use of television broadcasting as a medium, the time of the show, and the “G” rating of the show, which are all factors that made the utterances susceptible to children viewers. The Court emphasized on how the uttered words could be easily understood by a child literally rather than in the context that they were used.
Efforts by Soriano to frame the suspension as a prior restraint deserving higher scrutiny also proved futile. The Court said that the suspension “is not a prior restraint on the right of petitioner to continue with the broadcast of Ang Dating Daan as a permit was already issued to him by MTRCB,” rather, it was a sanction for “the indecent contents of his utterances in a “G” rated TV program.”
The Court however clarified the MTRCB ruling and held that the suspension was limited only to the show Ang Dating Daan, not Soriano, as the MTRCB “may not suspend television personalities, for such would be beyond its jurisdiction.”
However, Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno, in a separate dissenting opinion, said that a single government action could be both a penalty and a prior restraint. The Chief Magistrate pointed out that the three month suspension takes such form because it also acts as a restraint to petitioner’s future speech and thus deserves a higher scrutiny than the “context based” approach that the majority applied. In voting to grant Soriano’s petition, the Chief Justice said that “in the absence of proof and reason, he [Soriano] should not be penalized with a three-month suspension that works as a prior restraint on his speech.”
Also dissenting, Justice Carpio calls the suspension “an unconstitutional prior restraint on freedom of expression” which should not have been allowed. According to Justice Carpio, prior restraints may only be justified if they are either “pornography, false or misleading advertisement, advocacy of imminent lawless action, and [or] danger to national security,” and “obviously, what petitioner uttered does not fall under any of the four.”
Justices Ynares-Santiago, Nazario, Nachura, Leonardo-De Castro, Peralta and Bersamin concurred with the ponencia of Justice Velasco, while Justice Tinga wrote a concurring oprinion where he was joined by Justice Austria-Martinez. Justice Corona also wrote a separate opinion and voted to dismiss the petition. He was joined by Justice Brion. Justice Quisumbing joined the dissenting opinion of Justice Carpio, while Justice Morales joined both dissenting opinions of Chief Justice Puno and Justice Carpio. (GR No. 164785, Soriano v. Laguardia; GR No. 165636, Soriano v. MTRCB, April 29, 2009)