Jimenez vs Cabangbang
Political Law – Freedom of Speech and Debate
Cabangbang was a member of the House of Representatives and Chairman of its Committee on National Defense. On 14 Nov 1958, Cabangbang caused the publication of an open letter addressed to the Philippines. Said letter alleged that there have been allegedly three operational plans under serious study by some ambitious AFP officers, with the aid of some civilian political strategists. That such strategists have had collusions with communists and that the Secretary of Defense, Jesus Vargas, was planning a coup d’état to place him as the president. The “planners” allegedly have Nicanor Jimenez, among others, under their guise and that Jimenez et al may or may not be aware that they are being used as a tool to meet such an end. The letter was said to have been published in newspapers of general circulation. Jimenez then filed a case against Cabangbang to collect a sum of damages against Cabangbang alleging that Cabangbang’s statement is libelous. Cabangbang petitioned for the case to be dismissed because he said that as a member of the HOR he is immune from suit and that he is covered by the privileged communication rule and that the said letter is not even libelous.
ISSUE: Whether or not the open letter is covered by privilege communication endowed to members of Congress. Whether or not the said letter is libelous.
HELD: Article VI, Section 15 of the Constitution provides “The Senators and Members of the House of Representatives shall in all cases except treason, felony, and breach of the peace. Be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the sessions of the Congress, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any speech or debate therein, they shall not be questioned in any other place.” The publication of the said letter is not covered by said expression which refers to utterances made by Congressmen in the performance of their official functions, such as speeches delivered, statements made, or votes cast in the halls of Congress, while the same is in session as well as bills introduced in Congress, whether the same is in session or not, and other acts performed by Congressmen, either in Congress or outside the premises housing its offices, in the official discharge of their duties as members of Congress and of Congressional Committees duly authorized to perform its functions as such at the time of the performance of the acts in question. Congress was not in session when the letter was published and at the same time he, himself, caused the publication of the said letter. It is obvious that, in thus causing the communication to be so published, he was not performing his official duty, either as a member of Congress or as officer of any Committee thereof. Hence, contrary to the finding made by the lower court the said communication is not absolutely privileged.
The SC is satisfied that the letter in question is not sufficient to support Jimenez’ action for damages. Although the letter says that plaintiffs are under the control of the persons unnamed therein alluded to as “planners”, and that, having been handpicked by Vargas, it should be noted that defendant, likewise, added that “it is of course possible” that plaintiffs “are unwitting tools of the plan of which they may have absolutely no knowledge”. In other words, the very document upon which plaintiffs’ action is based explicitly indicates that they might be absolutely unaware of the alleged operational plans, and that they may be merely unwitting tools of the planners. The SC does not think that this statement is derogatory to Jimenez to the point of entitling them to recover damages, considering that they are officers of our Armed Forces, that as such they are by law, under the control of the Secretary of National Defense and the Chief of Staff, and that the letter in question seems to suggest that the group therein described as “planners” include these two (2) high ranking officers. Petition is dismissed.