Police Action, Freedom of Expression, and Human Dignity

Manila Bulletin, October 12, 2005 | Go to article overview

Police Action, Freedom of Expression, and Human Dignity


Byline: Francis N. Tolentino

I WAS in Oklahoma City two weeks ago when Hurricane Rita battered New Orleans for the second time after Katrina. Reports yesterday indicate that the situation affected the morale of the entire New Orleans Police Department whose members are still sleeping in their cars, having lost their homes, with their families scattered across the United States. The badly damaged image of the police department led to its police superintendent's resignation two weeks ago (Sept. 27, 2005) amid allegations that while Katrina hovered over the city, the police officers broke into a car dealership and stole nearly 200 cars, including 41 brand-new Cadillacs.

While job "stress'' may be a factor to consider, last Saturday's (Oct. 8, 2005) beating of a black man named Robert Davis by three New Orleans police officers which was incidentally filmed by an Associated Press cameraman (who was also beaten up) will surely raise issues across the United States in the coming weeks, similar to the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles a few years ago. Civil libertarians would surely go beyond normal investigation.

The New Orleans police beating incident reminds us of what transpired last week in the University Belt area in Manila when demonstrators bloodily scuffled with policemen and captured on video. Street protesters were violently dispersed by uniformed authorities, claiming to have acted upon their duty to maintain public order and protect the rights of the greater number. Regardless of gender or age, file videos and stills showed demonstrators forcefully being taken inside police vehicles or dragged and handcuffed on street corners. Where does "maximum tolerance'' reach its maximum? These and other similar manifestations of suppression of the people's freedom of expression have generated issues concerning the people's right to peacefully assemble and make their grievances known.

Let us be reminded that freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are two interlinked concepts. Obviously, our people assemble on streets to express aloud their grievances to the government. "Freedom of assembly, the right of people to gather together peaceably. . . is related to freedom of religion and freedom of speech, as well as the right to petition (formally request) the government to change its policies. Together these rights are sometimes conceived of as a right to freedom of association - that is, the right to join with others to peacefully seek common goals without the interference of the government.'' (Encarta Reference Library 2004)

Such kind of freedom, recognized and upheld universally by virtue of the United Nations' adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 (built upon the precedents set by the British Magna Carta of 1215, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789, and the United States Bill of Rights in 1791), is widely regarded as an essential feature of democracy. Article 19 and 20 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers,'' and that "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.''

Our 1987 Constitution further guarantees the right of each individual to express oneself freely in Article III Section 4. "No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. …

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Police Action, Freedom of Expression, and Human Dignity
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