SC asked to stop immediately, declare unconstitutional Comelec’s ‘Oplan Baklas’

Published March 1, 2022, 3:05 PM

by Rey Panaligan 

Supreme Court (SC)

The Supreme Court (SC) was asked on Tuesday, March 1, to declare unconstitutional the Commission on Elections’ (Comelec) “Oplan Baklas” which dismantles or confiscates oversized election campaign materials which are posted in the private property of individuals who are non-candidates.

In a petition filed by supporters of Vice President and presidential candidate Ma. Leonor “Leni” Robredo, the petitioners told the SC that the Comelec wrongfully interpreted and implemented Sections 21 (o), 24 and 26 of Resolution No. 10730 when the poll body applied these provisions to non-candidates.

“The taking down of privately owned materials in private property without notice and hearing and even the threat of legal action constitutes a chilling effect to the citizens’ right to freedom of expression, including political speech, thereby meriting immediate action from this Honorable Court,” the petition stated.

The petitioners — through lawyers Ray Paolo J. Santiago, Jay Pactores Pujanes, Ayn Ruth Z. Tolentino, and other collaborating counsels from Roxas City – asked the SC to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) that would stop immediately the Comelec’s “Oplan Baklas.”

Among the petitioners were Dr. Pilita de Jesus Liceralde, one of the convenors of Isabela for Leni; Dr. Anton Mari Hao Lim, one of the convenors of Zamboangueños for Leni; and St. Anthony College of Roxas City.

The petitioners told the SC their tarpaulins, posters, murals and other election materials that were all posted or displayed in their respective private property were forcefully dismantled, removed, destroyed or defaced and/or confiscated by the Comelec.

Named respondents in the petition are the poll body’s commissioners, led by Acting Chairperson Socorro B. Inting, and its Spokesperson James Jimenez who is the director of the Education and Information Department (EID).

Aside from the TRO, the petitioners asked the SC to direct the Comelec to return and/or restore all tarpaulins, posters, billboard, murals, and other election materials dismantled, removed, defaced and/or confiscated pursuant to Oplan Baklas.

Section 21 (o) of Resolution 10730 states: “No lawful election propaganda materials shall be allowed outside the common poster areas except on private property with the consent of the owner or in such other places mentioned in these Rules and must comply with the allowable size (2 feet x 3 feet) requirements for posters. Any violation hereof shall be punishable as an election offense.”

Section 24 provides that only one signboard, not exceeding three feet by eight feet in size, identifying the place as the headquarters of the party of candidates is allowed to be displaced.

Section 26, on the other hand provides that “any prohibited form of election propaganda shall be stopped, confiscated, removed, destroyed or torn down by Comelec representatives at the expense of the candidate or political party for whose apparent benefit the prohibited election propaganda materials have been produced, displayed and disseminated.”

The Comelec started implementing “Oplan Baklas” last February.

The petitioners said: “This uncalled for interference and encroachment upon the constitutional rights of the people are being conducted to this day in collaboration with groups of uniformed and heavily-armed law enforcement personnel without any legal basis to justify the act. Thus, effectively and forcibly dismantling, removing, destroying, defacing and/or confiscating said privately funded election materials.”

They cited the SC’s 2015 decision involving the same issue in the case elevated to the High Court by the Diocese of Bacolod City against the Comelec.

In the Diocese of Bacolod City case, members of the diocese posted two oversized tarpaulins inside the compound of the San Sebastian Cathedral in the city.

The Comelec directed the removal of the two tarpaulins with a warning that if not removed those responsible would be charged with violations of election laws pertaining to oversized campaign materials.

The members of the Diocese of Bacolod elevated the issue before the SC which issued a TRO against the Comelec order.

In resolving the petition, the SC ruled that the Comelec order was unconstitutional because the poll body “has no power to regulate the right to free expression of private citizens, who are neither candidates nor members of political parties.”

Also, the SC ruled “the Comelec’s action directing petitioners to remove the tarpaulins on their own property also violated petitioners’ right to property.”

In the petition filed by Robredo’s supporters, they pointed out that the ruling in the Diocese of Bacolod’s case made it clear that the Comelec cannot prohibit or censor speech, and that there is no requirement for non-candidates to comply with the size requirement of election paraphernalia when endorsing their choice of candidate.