What to expect when you’re expecting (a subpoena): Constitutional Rights 101

What to expect when you’re expecting (a subpoena): Constitutional Rights 101

No, the 1987 constitution does not expire in 2020.

Art by Paola Santos


A subpoena is formally defined as a writ ordering a person to attend a court, over alleged violations of the law. If you receive one, you will be sent a scanned copy of a document with the word ‘SUBPOENA’ in font size sixty, the name of the court summoning you and your name, along with your social media link on the top left corner. You will be called to appear at the main building of the issuing court the following week, at a designated time. You will be possibly charged for breaking a number of laws. You will also be at risk for infection of COVID-19. 

As of April 2, more than a dozen people have received subpoenas for supposedly offensive posts towards the government. Just the other day, Joshua Moloeditor-in-chief of the Dawn, the official student newspaper of the University of the East — was brought to his barangay hall after being reported by his former high school teachers for social media posts criticizing the current administration. He was threatened with being filed a libel case if he did not agree to making a public apology. 

In the rapid reshaping of our political landscape within the past three weeks of our enhanced community quarantine, our government officials have conflated criticism with crime. Last April 1, after an emergency address by President Duterte, he clearly named another enemy in the midst of this pandemic: all Filipinos “causing disorder”, that is, all Filipinos who do not follow the national government. He names them the left, the ones who cause undue alarm, so if we simply follow what they say, we’ll be safe… right? 

What you could be charged with

Threatening press freedom and the subversion of free speech is almost always a symptom of a decaying democracy, and always a manifestation of fascism. In Article III of our 1987 constitution, it states that “no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.” Embedded in our very constitution is the right to all of the freedoms that come with a democratic form of governance. 

Despite all this, the law leaves much space for interpretation. Public criticism that borders claims of abuse by our government, protests that are deemed unfounded upon and reporting of events that do not align with the narratives of our leaders could all fall under “fake news.” Your posts that question valid points of concern as a citizen could be charged with breaching the Bayanihan Act in which contains a clause that states violators fall under: “spreading fake news and information on COVID-19 or taking advantage of the current crisis, causing panic and chaos.” Subpoenas received by the dozen people who allegedly posted overtly critical posts directed at the government cited the invocation of Article 154, claiming that these posts were considered “unlawful use of means of publication and unlawful utterances.” 

To supplement claims of the danger of your online activism, you could also get charged with libel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 which refers to all unlawful or prohibited acts defined in the Revised Penal Code. Cybercrime could overlap with fake news, further defined as any online post that defames our government to the point of posing as a threat to public order.

The definitions of fake news and unlawful utterances seem to be loosely applied in our context. Especially in a state of national emergency when the slightest opposition fosters the possibility of escalation. Those who were reported to have been summoned by the NBI, were simply questioning the allocation of the P275 billion reserves under the Bayanihan Act. There was no overt motive to undermine national security or dismantle the government. Yet, that seemed good enough to seem like a pressing cause for an investigation.

What to do if you receive a subpoena

Stay calm. Receiving a subpoena does not necessarily connote acceptance and compliance to it, if you deem it unconstitutional and lacking grounds for it to begin with. However, according to veteran human rights lawyer Chel Diokno, get a lawyer first. Fast. 

You may file for a motion to quash a subpoena, containing three non-negotiables: it must be in writing and signed by the accused or legal counsel, and it must specify factual and legal grounds. 

Furthermore, do not go to the NBI alone. Always go with your legal counsel or ask them to go alone for you. If an NBI agent personally visits you or contacts you, take note of their name and ask for an ID. Take a photo of their ID if you can, as well. Your lawyer must also demand a copy of the complaint and supporting documents for the case.      

Lastly, deny answering questions without the presence of your lawyer and know that you are protected by the constitution first and foremost. Cases that cannot be proven to be based on factual evidence are constitutionally prohibited from coming into fruition at all. 

Why you shouldn’t be afraid 

The Philippines is still, above all, a democracy. Democracy entails the right to fair elections, the right to vote and of course, freedom of speech. The physicality of our activism has been reduced to the digital sphere and no outcry can challenge that. Though that must not stop us from demanding the right for our voices to occupy space, to demand transparency and accountability from our leaders, who have been elected through the same machinery that allows for us to exercise our freedom of speech. 

Rights are meant to be protected by the state, through our constitution. The constitution acts as the supreme law of the state and therefore, a law cannot be passed if it ever threatens the rights encompassed by it. Laws that have been passed, including the Bayanihan Act, must also be upheld in a constitutional manner. If insubstantial cases are founded upon the violation of an act that goes against the very right to freedom of expression, its basis nullifies the pursuit. 

Furthermore, every Filipino citizen is submitted to our constitution. No one is above the law, even Duterte himself. Let that be your mantra the next time you commit a spelling atrocity of Duterte just to avoid the internet trolls that swallow you into their algorithm. You cannot be vilified for exercising a right that is inherent and appointed to you. 

Contacts for free legal assistance


Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal (SALIGAN) 

Room 104 1st Floor
Cardinal Hoffner Training Center
Social Development Complex
Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City
Phone: (632) 426-001 ext. 4895/4860
E-mail: [email protected] 


National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) 

3F Erythrina Bldg., #1 Maaralin cor Matatag Sts., Brgy Central, Quezon City
Phone: (02) 920 6660
E-mail: nupl.net


Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) 

Room 116 Alumni Center Annex,Magsaysay Avenue, UP Campus, Diliman, Quezon City
Phone: +63 2 920 5132
E-mail: [email protected]


Ateneo Legal Services Center (ALSC)

20 Rockwell Drive, Rockwell Center 1200 Makati City
Phone: +63 (02) 899-7691 ext. 2113
E-mail: [email protected]


University of the Philippines Office of Legal Aid

Office of Legal Aid, UP College of Law, Malcolm Hall, Diliman Quezon City
Phone: (+632) 8 920 5514 loc. 106
E-mail: [email protected]

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