‘Government scholars free to express dissent’

Janvic Mateo, Christina Mendez - The Philippine Star
�Government scholars free to express dissent�
National Youth Commission chairman Ronald Cardema
Michael Varcas

Palace shoots down youth body proposal

MANILA, Philippines — The proposal of National Youth Commission chairman Ronald Cardema to strip “anti-government” or “rebellious” students of government scholarships was met with criticism both from the administration and the opposition for being violative of laws, particularly on freedom of speech and of expression.

Vice President Leni Robredo, presidential spokesman and chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, Commission on Higher Education chairman J. Prospero de Vera III, Sen. Francis Escudero, Education Secretary Leonor Briones, opposition senatorial candidates Samira Gutoc, Florin Hilbay and Gary Alejano as well as former Bayan Muna representative Satur Ocampo all said students must be allowed to speak their minds and develop critical thinking.

President Duterte said he respects dissent to his policies and every Filipino has the right to do it. “Wala naman kung dissent lang…those are just expression. I need more overt acts,” Duterte said, referring to chants to oust him during rallies, and that rebellion is another matter.

Panelo also clarified that mere membership of state university students in groups aligned with the Left is not a ground for the government to take away their scholarships.

He said the government will not be reckless in going after students who merely want to express their grievances.

“We are a government of laws and not of speculations,” Panelo said, noting that mere suspicion that students are taking part in a plot to overthrow the government will not be enough to pin them down.

“We must have evidence,” Panelo said.

Panelo sees nothing wrong if students join rallies or protest actions to air their dissent against government policies, noting that expressing one’s opinion is a valid exercise of their constitutional right to freedom of expression and of assembly in a democracy.

Panelo also noted that the Anti-Subversion Law was already repealed in 1992.

De Vera said there is no law or policy that prohibits scholars from criticizing the government, even those who are allegedly allied with communist groups.

“We have to implement the law as is it written and the law, Republic Act 10931, says students of good standing,” De Vera said, referring to the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education law, which removed tuition and other fees in government-funded tertiary institutions.

De Vera said critics may only be removed from government scholarships if they fail to fulfill the requirements, particularly of being in good standing.

Guevarra also expressed objection to the proposal of Cardema, warning that this could be a violation of the 1987 Constitution.

“With all due respect, such a proposal, if adopted, would effectively restrain the youth’s constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression,” he said in a text message.

“Our state universities and colleges, instead of taking it against the militant students by dropping them from the roll, should be proud that they are producing young people who are socially aware and concerned not only about themselves but also about the nation,” he stressed.

Robredo said, “I felt sad when I read about that, because throughout the history of our republic, every time there is conflict, every time is upheaval, the youth are brave, they are the first ones to act.”

“Does the National Youth Commission want our youth to become puppets of the government?” she said in Filipino. “Is this statement of the NYC something we have to fear?”

In a press conference, Gutoc, Hilbay and Alejano lamented that the idea came from no less than the head of a government body supposed to advance the interests of the country’s youth.

Hilbay, a former solicitor general, said the scholarships granted under the law to college students in state universities and colleges (SUCs) should be “based on merits, not politics.”

“The proposal is totally contrary to the mandate of the (NYC)... The youth should be allowed to speak their mind,” Hilbay said.

Gutoc, a peace advocate from Marawi, cited a landmark ruling of the Supreme Court that states that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

She said that students in and out of campus should instead be encouraged to think freely because this is what the nation needs.

Alejano said it is more dangerous to have young people who cannot think for themselves.

“If you gag them you also gag their future,” the former military officer said. “Their freedom of expression is guaranteed as long as they do not violate the Constitution.”

Escudero, chairman of the Senate committee on education, arts and culture, said Cardema is bringing shame to the administration for his “ignorance” of the Constitution, and if anyone should be fired it should be him.

Escudero said all students, including those who take part in street protests, are afforded by the state with the right even to due process and equal protection, just like any other citizen of this country.

He reminded Cardema that this government serves all Filipinos – whether they voted for the President or not.

Briones said if the student engages in illegal activities, “that’s another matter.”

“But being active in raising issues, questions and so on and so forth, we might as well ask a great number of national leaders to refund the government from the time when they were scholars,” she added.

Ocampo, who attended trial on multiple murder case filed against him before the Manila regional trial court, said the proposal is “stupid and irrational,” and even a “highest form of irony” as Cardema was a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps commander from the University of the Philippines.

Defense from the flak

Cardema has asked President Duterte to issue an executive order removing the state scholarships of all anti-government scholars, specifically those students who are allied with the Communist Party of the Philippines, New People’s Army and National Democratic Front, “a terrorist group that is trying to overthrow the Philippine government and killing our government troops.”

“The Filipino people formed the government to govern, to regulate, to discipline, to collect taxes and to allocate the Filipino people’s funds into government scholarships and programs. Fighting the government means fighting the majority of the Filipino people and also not fulfilling their roles as the expected breadwinners who will uplift their families and as our hope in strengthening our country,” Cardema said.

Yesterday, Cardema called Escudero “ignorant” of the statement he made, saying his proposal does not cover all government scholars amid the flak he is getting.

In a Facebook post, Cardema denied that he demanded the removal of militant students from government scholarships but only those who have become part of communist groups.

The Palace said taking part in moves to overthrow the government is already criminal in nature.

Under the Revised Penal Code), sedition, rebellion and conspiracy to commit these are crimes punishable by law.

Panelo said the government should withdraw students’ scholarships if they commit these felonies. – With Edu Punay, Helen Flores, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Marc Jayson Cayabyab

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