SC Acquits School Owner of Oral Defamation

October 23, 2021

“Due to the prosecution’s failure to prove the presence of specific intent to debase, degrade, or demean the victims’ intrinsic worth and dignity,” the Supreme Court acquitted the owner and directress of a Montessori school in Zambales who was charged with grave oral defamation for hurling invectives against some graduating high school students in 2010.

In a Decision penned by Justice Alfredo Benjamin S. Caguioa, the Court’s First Division granted the petition for certiorari of Asela Briñas to reverse and set aside the January 27, 2020 Decision and October 19, 2020 Resolution of the Court of Appeals (CA). The CA rulings affirmed with modification the April 13, 2018 decision of the Iba, Zambales Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 71 convicting Briñas of grave oral defamation in relation  to Section 10(a) of R.A. 7610, or the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act. Briñas is the owner and directress of Challenger Montessori School, Inc. in Zambales.

On January 25, 2010, the private complainants, two fourth year high school students, and their classmates sent a text message to a certain Charlene as follows: “Hi cha ate Gale to kumusta na[?] The “Gale” mentioned was Briñas’ daughter. After recess period, Charlene’s mother arrived and got angry at the private complainants and their classmates who sent the message for allegedly quarrelling with her daughter.”

Briñas called the private complainants and six others to the faculty room where she berated them and hurled invectives at them, calling “pinakamalalandi, pinakamalilibog, pinakamahadera at hindot,” among others.

The Iba, Zambales RTC gave credence to prosecution’s testimonies and found Briñas guilty, but considered the mitigating circumstance of passion and obfuscation. It sentenced her to suffer an indeterminate penalty of four years and two months of prision correccional in its medium period, as minimum to six years and one day of prision mayor in its minimum period, as maximum.

The CA affirmed the RTC ruling but also ordered her to pay each of the private complaints moral and temperate damages. This prompted Briñas to elevate her case to the SC.

However, the High Court ruled that the CA and RTC erred in finding Briñas guilty of violation of Section 10(a) in relation to Section 3(b)(2) of R.A. 7610 because the prosecution failed to prove the presence of intent to debase, degrade or demean the intrinsic worth of the private complainants as human beings.

Briñas had argued that her remarks against complainants were uttered in a fit of anger as a response to their involvement of her child’s name is a text message which “appears to be a scheme on other students.”

“Indeed, the evidence presented shows that Briñas’ acts were only done in the heat of anger, made after she had just learned that the private complainants had deceivingly used her daughter’s name to send a text message to another student, in what Briñas thought was part of a bigger and harmful scheme against the student body. She had also then just learned that the mother of the student who received the misleading text message had confronted the private complainants for quarreling with the former’s daughter. It appears, thus, that Briñas’ acts were fueled by her anger and frustration at the private complainants’ mischief which caused distress not only to her and her daughter but also to another student and parent,” the Court held.

The Court further held that the prosecution failed to sufficiently prove allegations of Briñas’ alleged subsequent acts of expulsion, suspension and withholding of the school records of private complainants. No documentary evidence was presented.

The Court also held that there is no crime of grave oral defamation in relation to Section 10(a) of R.A. 7610.

Section 10(a) states that “any person who shall commit any other acts of child abuse, cruelty or exploitation or to be responsible for other conditions prejudicial to the child’s development including those covered by Article 59 of PD No. 603, as amended, but not covered by the Revised Penal Code, as amended, shall suffer the penalty of prison mayor in its minimum period. In turn, Section 3(b) of R.A. 7610 defines child abuse as “maltreatment, whether habitual or not, of the child” which includes, among others, “any act by deeds or words which debases, degrades or demeans the intrinsic worth and dignity of a child as a human being.”

According to the SC, it is clear that Section 10(a) of R.A. 7610 punishes acts of child abuse which are “not covered by the Revised Penal Code.” As  such, “Briñas is correct — she cannot be convicted of grave oral defamation under the RPC in relation to Section 10(a). From the plain language of Section 10(a), the acts punished under it and those punished under the RPC are mutually exclusive. Acts which are already covered by the RPC are excluded from the coverage of Section 10(a).”

The Court stressed that “a conviction for child abuse under Section 10(a) in relation to Section 3(b)(2) of R.A. 7610 requires the presence of intent to debase, degrade or demean the intrinsic worth of the child as a human being.” The Court clarified that “debasement” is defined as the act of reducing the value, quality, or purity of something; “degradation” is a lessening of a person’s or thing’s character or quality; while “demean” means to lower in status, condition, reputation, or character.

(G.R. No. 254005, Briñas v. People, June 23, 2021)