Belo vs. Guevarra: A landmark case for Facebook privacy in PH

By Ike Suarez

A lawyer who uses social media to publicly insult and undermine the reputation of another person has violated the Code of Professional Responsibility for lawyers and may therefore be disciplined.

supreme court

This doctrine was enunciated in a recent promulgation by the Supreme Court involving a high-profile lawyer, Roberto “Argee” Guevarra, in a case filed by an equally high-profile plastic surgeon, Dr. Victoria “Vicki” Belo.

Finding Guevarra guilty, the high tribunal suspended him from the practice of law for one year with a stern warning that “a repetition of the same or similar act shall be dealt with more severely.”

The First Division of the SC, chaired by Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno, issued the decision last December 1, but made it publicly available early this January.

Considering the personalities involved, the case already makes for interesting, if not sensational reading. Moreover, it illustrates how the Internet — most especially social media — now enjoys widespread use in the Philippines.

As a result, the SC has now come into the picture to resolve legal disputes involving netizens. The SC decision sheds early light on the issue of Internet privacy, particularly social media as it applies to the Philippines. It also indicates that the Philippines is now contributing to the body of legal jurisprudence worldwide with regard to the impact of the Internet on society.

Guevarra not only is a lawyer, but also a columnist for a major daily newspaper. Moreover, his 2009 Facebook posts, which triggered Belo’s legal complaint against him, stemmed from his acts as legal counsel for one of her disgruntled patients.

His client had filed a malpractice and estafa complaint against Belo for allegedly botched surgical procedures on her buttocks in 2002 and 2005.

Belo is known to many Filipinos as a celebrity plastic surgeon who regularly appears on television. Her beauty tips and skin care advisories have a following among many eager viewers. Her practice has been such that she now is medical director and principal stockholder of Belo Medical Group. The corporation operates six clinics that perform plastic surgery procedures.

As lawyer for one of Belo’s disgruntled patients, Guevarra made in 2009 strong and disparaging remarks on his Facebook page against the plastic surgeon. These were against her as a person and her alleged malpractices as a doctor.

He likewise declared on his Facebook page that when then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s term would be over in 2010, Belo would no longer be a doctor. By that time, she would be facing criminal charges. Such would result in convictions for criminal negligence and estafa.

This prompted the celebrity to file towards the latter part of 2009 a complaint against Guevarra before the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) and asked for his disbarment. She charged that his posts against her violated the Code of Professional Responsibility for Filipino lawyers.

She alleged that Guevarra’ posts against her had no justifiable cause and were meant to destroy her clinic and ruin the medical practice of its 300 employees through the creation of public hatred against her.

Other allegations against Guevarra were the following:

• Without proofs or factual basis, he threatened her with criminal conviction
• Some of his posts were sexist, vulgar, and disrespectful of women
• His attacks were prompted by his P200-million extortion attempts on her

Responding to her complaint, Guevarra replied her charges violated his constitutional right to privacy. He also was merely exercising his freedom of speech and expression.

He likewise denied his posts were vulgar and obscene, designed to incite public hatred against her. There also was no extortion attempt on his part.

Guevarra asserted that his posts were private remarks on his private Facebook account. Meant for his friends only, with Belo not among them.

He said the demand letter — alleged by Belo as an extortion attempt — was a prior requirement for the filing of an estafa case and civil suit against her. He further asserted that since Belo was a public figure, his remarks constituted fair comment.

In August 2013, the IBP recommended Guevarra’s suspension for one year for the practice of law. It said he had 2,000 friends in his account able to read and react to his posts. He, therefore, could not invoke in his defense the private nature of his posts.

It also pointed out that the criminal case Guevarra had filed against Belo had been dismissed for insufficient evidence. Her alleged crimes had not been established and he therefore could not complain against her on behalf of his client.

Late September 2014, the IBP Board of Governors approved the report and recommendation. Guevarra asked for reconsideration and the board on September 2015 reduced his suspension to six months.

His case was then forwarded to the SC which examined its records. It restored to one year his suspension even if it concurred with the IBP findings.

It dismissed as untenable Guevarra’s defense of a violation of his constitutional right to privacy. A punctilious examination of his remarks indicated they were done with malice, according to the court. It said that as with other constitutional rights, freedom of expression is not an absolute right.

“While the freedom of expression and the right of free speech and of the press are among the most zealously protected rights in the Constitution, every person exercising them, as the Civil Code stresses, is obliged to act with justice, give everyone his due and observe honesty and good faith,” according to the decision.

It pointed out this freedom could not be availed of to broadcast lies or half truths, insult others, destroy their names or reputations or bring them into disrepute. On the other hand, Belo’s being a public figure, did not justify Guevarra’s disrespectful language against her.

The ponencia also said that “restricting the privacy of one’s posts to ‘Friends Only’ does not guarantee absolute protection from the prying eyes of another user who does not belong to his circle of friends.” A user’s friend could tag it to others not his friends.

The SC noted Guevarra offered no evidence he utilized any of the privacy tools or features of Facebook. Thus, his defense was self-serving at best.

It further stated that that Guevarra “disregarded the fact that as a lawyer, he is bound to observe proper decorum at all times, be it in his public or private life.” He therefore would have to be administratively sanctioned.

“Lawyers may be disciplined for any conduct committed in their private capacity, as long as their misconduct reflects their want of probity, or good demeanor, a good character being an essential qualification for the admission to the practice of law and the continuance of such privilege,” said the decision.

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