In the latter part of 1915, numerous citizens of the Province of Pampanga assembled, and prepared and signed a petition to the Executive Secretary, charging Roman Punsalan, justice of the peace of Macabebe and Masantol, Pampanga, with malfeasance in office and asking for his removal.
The petition was signed by thirty-four (34) citizens apparently of considerable standing, including councilors and property owners (now the defendants), and contained the statements set out in the information as libelous.
The Executive Secretary referred the papers to the judge of first instance for the Seventh Judicial District requesting investigation, proper action, and report.
The justice of the peace denied the charges and filed a motion for a new trial; the judge of first instance granted the motion and reopened the hearing; documents were introduced, including a letter sent by the municipal president and six councilors of Masantol, Pampanga, asserting that the justice of the peace was the victim of prosecution, and that one Agustin Jaime, the auxiliary justice of the peace, had instituted the charges for personal reasons.
The judge of first instance ordered a suppression of the charges against Punsalan and acquitted him the same.
Punsalan subsequently filed a case against the petitioners stating that the latter voluntarily, illegally, and criminally and with malicious intent to prejudice and defame him, who was the justice of the peace, by writing, and publishing false, scandalous, malicious, defamatory, and libelous things against him with deliberate purpose of attacking his virtue, honor, and reputation, and thus exposing him to public hatred, contempt, and ridicule.
The trial court Judge found all the defendants, with the exception of four persons, guilty, and sentenced each of them to pay a fine or to suffer subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency.
The trial court denied the motion. All the defendants, except two, appealed.
The guaranties of a free speech and a free press include the right to criticize judicial conduct. The administration of the law is a matter of vital public concern. Whether the law is wisely or badly enforced is, therefore, a fit subject for proper comment.
If the people cannot criticize a justice of the peace or a judge the same as any other public officer, public opinion will be effectively muzzled. Attempted terrorization of public opinion on the part of the judiciary would be tyranny of the basest sort.
The right to assemble and petition is the necessary consequence of republican institutions and the complement of the part of free speech. Assembly means a right on the part of citizens to meet peaceably for consultation in respect to public affairs. Petition means that any person or group of persons can apply, without fear of penalty, to the appropriate branch or office of the government for a redress of grievances. The persons assembling and petitioning must, of course, assume responsibility for the charges made.
Public policy, the welfare of society, and the orderly administration of government have demanded protection for public opinion. The inevitable and incontestable result has been the development and adoption of the doctrine of privilege.
The doctrine of privileged communications rests upon public policy, ‘which looks to the free and unfettered administration of justice, though, as an incidental result, it may in some instances afford an immunity to the evil-disposed and malignant slanderer.’
Privilege is classified as either absolute or qualified. Qualified privilege suggests a prima facie privilege which may be lost by proof of malice.
A pertinent illustration of the application of qualified privilege is a complaint made in good faith and without malice in regard to the character or conduct of a public official when addressed to an officer or a board having some interest or duty in the matter. Even when the statements are found to be false, if there is probable cause for belief in their truthfulness and the charge is made in good faith, the mantle of privilege may still cover the mistake of the individual. But the statements must be made under an honest sense of duty; a self-seeking motive is destructive. Personal injury is not necessary. All persons have an interest in the pure and efficient administration of justice and of public affairs. The duty under which a party is privileged is sufficient if it is social or moral in its nature and this person in good faith believes he is acting in pursuance thereof although in fact he is mistaken.
In the usual case malice can be presumed from defamatory words. Privilege destroys that presumption.
The onus of proving malice then lies on the plaintiff. The plaintiff must bring home to the defendant the existence of malice as the true motive of his conduct. Falsehood and the absence of probable cause will amount to proof of malice.
Probable cause for them to think that malfeasance or misfeasance in office existed is apparent. The ends and the motives of these citizens— to secure the removal from office of a person thought to be venal — were justifiable. In no way did they abuse the privilege. These respectable citizens did not eagerly seize on a frivolous matter but on instances which not only seemed to them of a grave character, but which were sufficient in an investigation by a judge of first instance to convince him of their seriousness. No undue publicity was given to the petition. The manner of commenting on the conduct of the justice of the peace was proper. And finally the charges and the petition were submitted through reputable attorneys to the proper functionary, the Executive Secretary.
We find the defendants and appellants entitled to the protection of the rules concerning qualified privilege, growing out of constitutional guaranties in our bill of rights. Instead of punishing citizens for an honest endeavor to improve the public service, we should rather commend them for their good citizenship.