POSTSCRIPT / September 27, 2005 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Read what the law says about public assemblies

CALIBRATED RESPONSE: Protest marchers and their sympathizers in media are beating the war drums against what they denounce as virtual martial law with the police having been ordered to act more decisively against illegal and destructive demonstrations.

The protests reached a crescendo after Malacanang raised a “mailed fist” in response to the escalation of street marches using the defeated impeachment complaints in the House of Representatives as justification.

“Mailed fist” is, of course, a figure of speech that I take to mean stricter, more resolute police action against mayhem in the streets spawned by violent protest rallies.

The fiery rhetoric blew hotter when Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita called for the police’s “calibrated preemptive reaction” to violent marches. The term is not mentioned in pertinent laws on public assemblies, but “maximum tolerance” is.

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THE LAW SAYS: Who will calibrate police action or decide what is preemptive or reactive? This layman thinks that the police, being the guardians of peace and order in the demo areas, will decide all that.

Anybody who disagrees can challenge police action in any of the forums available — right on the spot, the media, the courts, et cetera.

But much of the heated debate and the flailing of arms would have been avoided if everybody bothered to find out first what the law allows and what it forbids.

For this purpose, I looked up Batas Pambansa Bilang 880, the “Public Assembly Act of 1985,” which was approved Oct. 22, 1985, by the Batasang Pambansa. The notes below were culled from it.

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TERMS DEFINED: Under Section 3 of BP 880, “Public assembly” means “any rally, demonstration, march, parade, procession or any other form of mass or concerted action held in a public place for the purpose of presenting a lawful cause; or expressing an opinion to the general public on any particular issue; or protesting or influencing any state of affairs whether political, economic or social; or petitioning the government for redress of grievances.”

The definition does not include picketing and other concerted action in strike areas by workers and employees resulting from a labor dispute as defined by labor laws. Political meetings or rallies during an election campaign are also not covered.

The same section defines a “public place” to include “any highway, boulevard, avenue, road, street, bridge or other thoroughfare, park, plaza, square, and/or any open space of public ownership where the people are allowed access.”

“Maximum tolerance” means the highest degree of restraint that the military, police and other peace-keeping authorities shall observe during a public assembly or its dispersal.

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PERMIT NEEDED: A public assembly is either with or without a permit. When the public assembly is held without a permit where a permit is required, the assembly may be peacefully dispersed.

Section 4 of the law says that a written permit is required for any person or persons to organize and hold a public assembly in a public place.

But no permit is needed if the public assembly is held in a freedom park established by law or in a private property, in which case only the consent of the owner or the one entitled to its legal possession is required, or on the campus of a government-owned and -operated school subject to the rules of said institution.

The applications must be in writing and shall include the names of the leaders or organizers; the purpose of such assembly; the date, time and duration, and place or streets to be used; and the probable number of participants, the transportation and the public address systems to be used. The application shall detail the duty and responsibility of applicant(s).

The application shall be filed with the office of the mayor at least five working days before the scheduled assembly. The office of the mayor must acknowledge in writing receipt of the application and post it in a conspicuous place.

The law says: “It shall be the duty of the mayor or any official acting in his behalf to issue or grant a permit unless there is clear and convincing evidence that the public assembly will create a clear and present danger to public order, public safety, public convenience, public morals or public health.”

The mayor or any official acting in his behalf must act on the application within two working days from the date of filing, failing which, the permit shall be deemed granted.

Objections to the action taken by the office of the mayor may be filed with the proper court. Such cases must be decided within 24 hours from date of filing.

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DEMO DUTIES: Section 8 says it is the duty and responsibility of the leaders and organizers of a public assembly to take all reasonable measures to ensure that the assembly is conducted peacefully in accordance with the permit. Their responsibility includes:

  1. To inform the participants of their responsibility under the permit.
  2. To police the ranks of the demonstrators to prevent non-demonstrators from disrupting the lawful activities of the assembly.
  3. To confer with local officials and law enforcers so the assembly may be held peacefully.
  4. To see to it that the assembly does not go beyond the time stated in the permit.
  5. To take steps so demonstrators do not molest any person or do any act unduly interfering with the rights of other persons not participating in the assembly.

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POLICE DUTIES: Section 9 orders law enforcers not to interfere with the holding of a public assembly. However, to adequately ensure public safety, a law enforcement contingent under the command of a responsible police officer may be stationed at least 100 meters away from the area of activity ready to maintain peace and order at all times.

When assistance is requested or when the police in their calibrated response to a situation move in, they must:

  1. Be in complete uniform with their nameplates and their units displayed prominently on the front and dorsal parts of their uniform and must observe “maximum tolerance.”
  2. Not carry any firearms but may be equipped with baton or riot sticks, shields, crash helmets with visor, gas masks, boots or ankle-high shoes with shin guards.
  3. Not use tear gas, smoke grenades, water cannons, or any similar anti-riot device unless the public assembly is attended by actual violence or serious threats of violence, or deliberate destruction of property.

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DISPERSAL GUIDES: As a rule, under Section 11, no public assembly with a permit shall be dispersed. However, when an assembly becomes violent, the police may disperse such assembly as follows:

  1. At the first sign of impending violence, the ranking officer of the law enforcers shall call the attention of the leaders of the assembly and ask them to prevent any possible disturbance.
  2. If actual violence starts to a point where rocks or other harmful objects from the participants are thrown at the police or at non-participants, or at any property causing damage to it, the ranking police officer shall audibly warn the participants that if the disturbance persists, the assembly will be dispersed.
  3. If the violence or disturbances does not stop or abate, the ranking officer shall audibly warn the participants, and after allowing reasonable of time to lapse, shall order the assembly to disperse immediately.
  4. No arrest of any leader, organizer or participant shall be made during the assembly unless he violates during the assembly a law, statute, ordinance or any provision of the Public Assembly Act.

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VERBOTEN: While the holding of a public assembly without a permit where one is required is a violation by the leader(s) or organizer(s), no other person can be punished or held criminally liable for participating in or attending an otherwise peaceful assembly.

If committed within 100 meters of the public assembly, these acts are violations of law:

  1. The carrying of a deadly or offensive weapon or device such as firearm, pillbox, bomb, a bladed weapon and the like.
  2. The malicious burning of any object in the streets or thoroughfares.
  3. The carrying of firearms by members of the law enforcement unit.

But even beyond 100 meters, the unnecessary firing of firearms by a member of any law enforcement agency or any person to disperse the public assembly is a crime.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 27, 2005)

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