By Antonio Contreras
When Congress promotes contempt of constitutional rights, and schools subvert academic freedom, we need to pause and reflect seriously at the crossroads they create.
There is no doubt that the Congress has a right to conduct hearings and investigations. However, because it is not a judicial or even a quasi-judicial body, and it is not in its constitutional mandate to make conclusions of guilt, its power to investigate is limited only to those that would aid its legislative work.
This is clearly stipulated in Section 21 of Article VI of the 1987 Constitution, which states: “The Senate or the House of Representatives or any of its respective committees may conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure.”
Because they are hearings in aid of legislation, it is therefore inherent in the process that the proceedings would either be an examination of how laws are being implemented, or in gathering facts about a certain societal problem that would require legislation.
Section 1 of the 2009 Senate Rules of Procedure for the Conduct of Investigations in Aid of Legislation clearly states that these inquiries “may refer to the implementation or reexamination of any law or appropriation, or in connection with any proposed legislation or the formulation of, or in connection with future legislation, or will aid in the review or formulation of a new legislative policy or enactment.”
However, the conduct of these hearings are limited by the Constitution, and by jurisprudence. The same Section 21 of the Constitution clearly reminds Congress that “the rights of persons appearing in or affected by such inquiries shall be respected.”
There is no law that treats congressional hearings as equivalent to judicial proceedings. These are governed by internal rules passed by Congress which are not in any way treated as statutes or laws.
Thus, the basic rights accorded to individuals enshrined in the Constitution and other laws should never be diluted, considering that the rules passed by Congress are never to be seen as superior to the Constitution or these laws.
It is therefore interesting that despite the fact that these congressional hearings are done in aid of legislation, and therefore are by nature administrative in character, that both the House and the Senate internal rules refer to individuals invited to appear as “witnesses” instead of being mere resource persons.
To label them as such already presupposes that there is some crime or wrongdoing that has been done that these people are being summoned not by an invitation, but by a subpoena.
What aggravates the adjudicative optics is the behavior of some members of Congress when they ask questions of their supposedly invited resource persons, but now they treat as if they are witnesses to the commission of a crime. We have seen persons who have been savaged literally, even openly libeled by members of Congress who are cloaked with parliamentary immunity.
This is an enormous power that is openly abused in a venue that does not provide protection to the resource persons who are now treated as if there is no longer any presumption of innocence and regularity.
Worse, their due process rights are not even respected considering that while they are allowed to appear with their counsel, these counsels cannot even object to the line of questioning by the legislators, much more to cross-examine them or other so-called witnesses.
On record, these congressional hearings have already proved fatal, with one incident of a general committing suicide in front of the grave of his mother after being pilloried and humiliated at a Senate hearing.
The Constitution protects the right to liberty, and no person shall be deprived of such without due process of law. It also guarantees that everyone is entitled to the right against self-incrimination.
And yet, both houses of Congress have powers to cite these so-called witnesses in contempt, and have them detained, on the mere basis that their answers do not satisfy the members of Congress, as what happened to those Ilocos Norte officials who were detained by the House of Representatives in the past. At least the House limits the detention of those cited for contempt to only 10 days.
The Senate is worse, as it gives the impression that it can detain people for life considering that it is a continuing body, until the Supreme Court in 2018 limited such period to end upon termination of the inquiry. The high court soundly denied the Senate the power to detain indefinitely and ruled that such move impairs the constitutional right to liberty of any individual.
In an ideal world, while Congress should retain the power or oversight over how laws are being implemented, particularly on how public funds are being spent, it cannot exceed the power allocated to it by the Constitution.
Its investigative powers are technically administrative in character, and while it can possess contempt powers when its authority is being challenged by the refusal of resource persons to cooperate, or provide important information, such should be exercised within the ambit of the principle of the separation of powers.
The case of the US House of Representatives is particularly noteworthy here, where a motion to cite Steve Bannon for contempt was voted upon by the entire House and was passed on to the justice department, an agency under the executive branch, for proper determination of probable cause. Should probable cause be found, then it is passed on to the courts.
In Neri v. the Senate, the court has already found Congress to have gravely abused its powers in citing former Economic secretary Romulo Neri for contempt. It’s about time we take another closer look into the conduct of congressional investigations in aid of legislation, and to seriously weigh it against the rubric of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
Certainly, we cannot allow Congress to use its contempt powers to protect its right to pass legislation by denying resource persons, whom it mislabels as witnesses, their constitutionally guaranteed rights.
We cannot allow its contempt powers to be contemptuous of those rights.
Educational institutions undermine academic freedom
There is danger when a profession, like doctors or lawyers, or even barbers, declare that they are for certain candidates, even coming up with online memes and banners screaming their chosen political color. This is because they make it appear that every member and practitioner of that profession supports this or that candidate.
Most guilty of this offense are those who support the candidacy of Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo.
But then again, someone doing this can be excused by the argument that they are not claiming universality, except to state a fact that, indeed, they are a group of lawyers, doctors and barbers supporting Robredo. There is nothing wrong with that. Certainly, another group from the same profession or cohort can come out and publicly declare their support for an opposing candidate.
But what is certainly problematic is when companies and organizations begin to emblazon the color pink or any other political color in their buildings or on their marquees; even articulating in clear terms their open support for their preferred candidates. In this case, what it suggests is that the entire company or organization, from the owner to the utility worker, supports that candidate.
Many people would frown at the practice of some religious denominations when they order their flock to vote as a bloc, but this is the same thing. Both would undermine the very nature of suffrage as a fundamental individual right where every person is entitled to a choice that is free from any pressure even by family and friends and more so by pastors, company presidents and supervisors.
It is in this context that is most egregious when we see academic institutions of higher learning publicly declare, or at least make it appear, that the entire academic community is supporting a particular candidate. We see this either openly when a president of a university commits his entire faculty, students and staff to the candidacy of Robredo, or symbolically, when icons like university buildings and gates are emblazoned with the color pink.
Indeed, while theoretically other candidates can also benefit from this endorsement, it is a fact that practically all declared or symbolic endorsements made by universities and other academic institutions are overwhelmingly for Robredo.
Certainly, individual owners, administrators, faculty members, students and staff working in academic institutions can express their political preferences, and the only bar that could prevent them would be the prohibition against those who work in government institutions to openly engage in partisan activities. But it is an entirely different matter when a university or academic institution makes it appear that it has a collective stand, and that it is committing itself to support a particular candidate.
The main reason why this is problematic is that such a stance is a fundamental assault on the very principle of academic freedom which universities and colleges enjoy as a constitutional right. These academic institutions cannot on one hand resist state intrusion into their right to determine who to admit and what, how and who should teach, but on the other hand undermine the freedom of the members of their academic communities.
At the core of academic freedom is its being analogous to the enjoyment of individual rights. The Supreme Court on many occasions has struck down the prerogative of universities and schools to deny their constituents the free exercise of their rights, that the mere participation in political mobilization even against school policies cannot be used to bar the enrollment of students because such would amount to a denial of individuals’ free speech rights.
When a university publicly declares its political preference, either overtly or by the power of suggestion, what it does is to commit every member of its academic community to that candidate. It is fundamentally wrong for a university to boldly commit itself to support a particular candidate without including a caveat that this is just the stand of a sector or group. In the absence of this qualifier, projecting a common stand would be a facial attack on the right of its members to freely exercise their civil and political right associated with their right to vote.
This is not an affront only to the very principle of suffrage where votes are supposed to be personal and free, but to the very core of academic freedom. And worse, it can even lead to a silent form of repression, or at best, a climate of fear that constrains dissenting opinions.
Since universities and colleges are also workplaces, there are certain power relations that can exist that can become threatening to subordinates who may espouse different political preferences. Most exposed to risk are those at the lower ranks, and the untenured and part-time faculty who may be more vulnerable.
Academic institutions are supposed to be places where open debate about diverging political preferences and choices is given space, enabled, nurtured and encouraged. How can this be fulfilled if a top university official comes out and makes a commitment to support his preferred political candidate?
In the absence of any qualifier that this is just his personal preference, or that of a group, this would not lead to an opening but to a closure of these spaces. Worse, it can very well lead to a climate of fear and intimidation that silences people, particularly the weaker and more vulnerable.
Elections are supposed to be a season when reason has to overwhelm passion, and it is in this regard that universities are called to render service to the nation by being venues to cultivate the ethos of rational thinking, and not dogmatic partisanship.
A university cannot teach critical thinking skills if such is usurped by a corporate edict that suggests, or even commands, its constituents to surrender their right to choose and articulate those choices. It cannot use academic freedom as a shield from external interference if it violates the rights of its members to freely choose their preferred candidates.