Hierarchy of Rights: Basic Concepts and Principles

The following is an excerpt from the case of Philippine Blooming Mills Employment Organization v Philippine Blooming Mills Co Inc, stating the basic concepts and principles of the Bill of Rights. 

(1) In a democracy, the preservation and enhancement of the dignity and worth of the human personality is the central core as well as the cardinal article of faith of our civilization. The inviolable character of man as an individual must be “protected to the largest possible extent in his thoughts and in his beliefs as the citadel of his person.” 

(2) The Bill of Rights is designed to preserve the ideals of liberty, equality and security “against the assaults of opportunism, the expediency of the passing hour, the erosion of small encroachments, and the scorn and derision of those who have no patience with general principles.” 

In the pithy language of Mr. Justice Robert Jackson, the purpose of the Bill of Rights is to withdraw “certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s rights to life, liberty and property, to free speech, or free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” Laski proclaimed that “the happiness of the individual, not the well-being of the State, was the criterion by which its behaviour was to be judged. His interests, not its power, set the limits to the authority it was entitled to exercise.” 

(3) The freedoms of expression and of assembly as well as the right to petition are included among the immunities reserved by the sovereign people, in the rhetorical aphorism of Justice Holmes, to protect the ideas that we abhor or hate more than the ideas we cherish; or as Socrates insinuated, not only to protect the minority who want to talk, but also to benefit the majority who refuse to listen. And as Justice Douglas cogently stresses it, the liberties of one are the liberties of all; and the liberties of one are not safe unless the liberties of all are protected. 

(4) The rights of free expression, free assembly and petition, are not only civil rights but also political rights essential to man’s enjoyment of his life, to his happiness and to his full and complete fulfillment. Thru these freedoms the citizens can participate not merely in the periodic establishment of the government through their suffrage but also in the administration of public affairs as well as in the discipline of abusive public officers. The citizen is accorded these rights so that he can appeal to the appropriate governmental officers or agencies for redress and protection as well as for the imposition of the lawful sanctions on erring public officers and employees.

(5) While the Bill of Rights also protects property rights, the primacy of human rights over property rights is recognized. Because these freedoms are “delicate and vulnerable, as well as supremely precious in our society” and the “threat of sanctions may deter their exercise almost as potently as the actual application of sanctions,” they “need breathing space to survive,” permitting government regulation only “with narrow specificity.” 

Property and property rights can be lost thru prescription; but human rights are imprescriptible. If human rights are extinguished by the passage of time, then the Bill of Rights is a useless attempt to limit the power of government and ceases to be an efficacious shield against the tyranny of officials, of majorities, of the influential and powerful, and of oligarchs — political, economic or otherwise.

In the hierarchy of civil liberties, the rights of free expression and of assembly occupy a preferred position as they are essential to the preservation and vitality of our civil and political institutions;  and such priority “gives these liberties the sanctity and the sanction not permitting dubious intrusions.”

The superiority of these freedoms over property rights is underscored by the fact that a mere reasonable or rational relation between the means employed by the law and its object or purpose — that the law is neither arbitrary nor discriminatory nor oppressive — would suffice to validate a law which restricts or impairs property rights.  On the other hand, a constitutional or valid infringement of human rights requires a more stringent criterion, namely existence of a grave and immediate danger of a substantive evil which the State has the right to prevent. So it has been stressed in the main opinion of Mr. Justice Fernando in Gonzales vs. Comelec and reiterated by the writer of the opinion in Imbong vs. Ferrer It should be added that Mr. Justice Barredo inGonzales vs. Comelecsupra, like Justices Douglas, Black and Goldberg in N.Y. Times Co. vs. Sullivan,  believes that the freedoms of speech and of the press as well as of peaceful assembly and of petition for redress of grievances are absolute when directed against public officials or “when exercised in relation to our right to choose the men and women by whom we shall be governed,” even as Mr. Justice Castro relies on the balancing-of-interests test. Chief Justice Vinson is partial to the improbable danger rule formulated by Chief Judge Learned Hand, viz. — whether the gravity of the evil, discounted by its improbability, justifies such invasion of free expression as is necessary to avoid the danger.

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