Social Weather Station v. Comelec G.R. 147571, May 5, 2001

Facts: Petitioners brought this action for prohibition to enjoin the Commission on Elections from enforcing §5.4 of RA. No.9006 (Fair Election Act), which provides Surveys affecting national candidates shall not be published fifteen (15) days before an election and surveys affecting local candidates shall not be published seven (7) days before an election. Petitioners argue that the restriction on the publication of election survey results constitutes a prior restraint on the exercise of freedom of speech without any clear and present danger to justify such restraint. They claim that SWS and other pollsters conducted and published the results of surveys prior to the 1992, 1995, and 1998 elections up to as close as two days before the election day without causing confusion among the voters and that there is neither empirical nor historical evidence to support the conclusion that there is an immediate and inevitable danger to tile voting process posed by election surveys. They point out that no similar restriction is imposed on politicians from explaining their opinion or on newspapers or broadcast media from writing and publishing articles concerning political issues up to the day of the election. Consequently, they contend that there is no reason for ordinary voters to be denied access to the results of election surveys, which are relatively objective.

Issue: Whether COMELEC restriction on survey during the Election period constitute a violation of the Freedom of Expression.

Held: Yes, the court hold that §5.4 is invalid because (1) it imposes a prior restraint on the freedom of expression, (2) it is a direct and total suppression of a category of expression even though such suppression is only for a limited period, and (3) the governmental interest sought to be promoted can be achieved by means other than suppression of freedom of expression.

This form of ad hoc balancing predictably results in sustaining the challenged legislation and leaves freedom of speech, expression, and the press with little protection. For anyone who can bring a plausible justification forward can easily show a rational connection between the statute and a legitimate governmental purpose.

In enunciating a standard premised on a judicial balancing of the conflicting social values and individual interests competing for ascendancy in legislation which restricts expression, the court laid the basis for what has been called the “balancing-of-interests”, the “balancing” test requires a court to take conscious and detailed consideration of the interplay of interests observable in a given situation or type of situation.

In the actual application of the “balancing-of-interests” test, the crucial question is: how much deference should be given to the legislative judgment?

Although the urgency of the public interest sought to be secured by Congressional power restricting the individual’s freedom, and the social importance and value of the freedom so restricted, “are to be judged in the concrete, not on the basis of abstractions,” a wide range of factors are necessarily relevant in ascertaining the point or line of equilibrium. Among these are:

(a) the social values and importance of the specific aspect of the particular freedom restricted by the legislation;

(b) the specific thrust of the restriction, i.e., whether the restriction is direct or indirect, whether or not the persons affected are few;

(c) the value and importance of the public interest sought to be secured by the legislation — the reference here is to the nature and gravity of the evil which Congress seeks to prevent;

(d) whether the specific restriction decreed by Congress is reasonably appropriate and necessary for the protection of such public interest; and

(e) whether the necessary safeguarding of the public interest involved may be achieved by some other measure less restrictive of the protected freedom.

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