Bikini, Facebook and school policies: A complex legal maze

What are the rules of schools? How clear and reasonable are they?

MANILA, Philippines – Here are the facts: a picture of 2 students clad in bikini, with one of them holding a bottle of liquor and cigarette, was posted on Facebook. The school barred the students from attending their graduation ceremony in the name of upholding Christian values.

One of the students filed a civil suit against the school – St. Theresa’s College (STC) in Cebu – and sought damages. The Student Council Alliance of the Philippines said the school violated her right to freedom of expression.

On Thursday afternoon, March 29, a Cebu regional trial court issued a temporary restraining order allowing the students to attend their graduation scheduled on Friday, March 30.

But the case is far from over. What right does the school have to extend such punishment? And in exerting this right, did it violate their students’ constitutional rights? 

To address these, one must also raise the following questions, according to legal experts interviewed by Rappler:

Question no. 1: What are the school’s rules? How clear and reasonable are they? 

Dean Ernest Maceda of the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila said the controversy should be taken within the context of a student being given disciplinary action by a learning institution which has its own rules.

When the parents enrolled their child in the school, they should have understood that this meant their kid would submit to the rules made by the school.

“If it’s a sectarian institution, that’s part of the education you signed for,” he said.

But Maceda asked: Were these rules stated in the student handbook? STC said they have a rule banning students from posting photos that show “ample body exposure.”

Question no.2: Was the right to due process observed? (And under this question and for this case specifically, were the dynamics of Facebook usage considered?)

Lawyer and Ateneo professor Marlon Manuel said school rules must be reasonable and implemented properly.

While the STC rule states the prohibition, it should also have included additional guidelines covering the penalty and the process of investigation. Was the punishment commensurate to the act? Or was it too harsh?

Dean Amado Valdez of the University of the East said that if this is the first instance of violation in the case of the students, then the school should have given them a warning first.

But were the students even given a chance to explain their side of the story?

Valdez said asking if the student’s right to due process was observed is “a very valid question.” The right to due process, after all, is guaranteed under the 1987 Constitution.

The students said they were not given the chance to defend themselves. 

Maceda explained that a proper investigation would have included understanding how Facebook works. The student reportedly said she did not post the picture and that her account is private.

Lawyer Romel Bagares also posted on Facebook that “Public/private is a tricky thing in the era of Facebook, as this case vividly demonstrates…her defense is someone else posted the photo and not she. Rightly so, her lawyer raised the issue of due process.”

Question no.3: Should the rules apply even if a.) the act is done outside the school or b.) it is not related to any school activity?

Maceda said that under the Manual of Regulations for Private Schools, school authorities could discipline students who violate the institution’s rules anywhere – as long as these are committed when students are engaged in school activities.

Maceda also cited a Supreme Court ruling which said that the school could punish students even if the act is committed outside school premises and not connected to campus-related functions – as long as the misconduct “involves his status as a student or affects the good name of the school.” 

In the 1982 ruling in Angeles v. Sison, the SC second division overturned a lower court ruling stopping the Far Eastern University from proceeding with its administrative investigation of students Edgardo Picar and Wlifredo Patawaran. Both students allegedly assaulted their professor Jose Angeles in a restaurant in Quiapo, Manila.

The Court of First Instance of Manila ruled that FEU could not investigate actions outside school premises. But the SC said this rule is not rigid. The school may exercise its power to investigate offenses committed outside the campus if they harm the school’s name.

“The true test of a school’s right to investigate, or otherwise, suspend or expel a student for a misconduct committed outside the school premises and beyond school hours is not the time or place of the offense, but its effect upon the morale and efficiency of the school and whether it, in fact, is adverse to the school’s good order welfare and the advancement of its students,” the High Court said in the decision penned by Justice Ramon Fernandez.

The Court added that the incident is related to issues concerning the school. The students reportedly held a grudge against their professor because he failed one of them (Picar) in a subject while he did not allow Patawaran to enroll in his class because he had enough students in his section. 

Question no. 4: Was there an intent to malign the school’s name?

The STC student claimed she did not post the picture. But if the contrary is proven, Manuel said it still has to be established if there was malice on her part when she posted it.

Question no.5: What rights were violated?

Manuel and Maceda agreed that it has yet to be proven if the students’ freedom of expression was indeed violated in this case.

Maceda explained that while the students enjoy this right, the school, as part of its academic freedom, could also set certain parameters. For example, he said that a student may not be allowed to say something that would denigrate school authority, even he has the right to voice his opinions.

Manuel and Valdez agreed though that the student could seek moral damages if she feels that the STC decision besmirched her reputation or caused her emotional trauma. (Her parents’ suit sought for damages).

Manuel added that the court could also award exemplary damages to set an example to other educational institutions. –