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SC junks Cebu ‘bikini students’ plea vs. school

The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the Cebu school that barred five of its students from attending their high school graduation rites in March 2012 for posting their bikini photos on Facebook.

In an 18-page decision, the SC's Third Division denied a petition for the issuance of a writ of habeas data filed by parents of two of the five sanctioned students.

The parents asked the SC to order St. Theresa's College to surrender the controversial photos that school officials allegedly downloaded from the students Facebook accounts.

The photos were used as basis to impose sanctions against the students, including disallowing them from marching during the graduation rites on March 30, 2012.

Of the five students, only four took up the case in court. Two of the four eventually dropped the case after reaching a settlement with the school.

The parents of the two remaining students who pursued the case insisted STC computer teacher Mylene Rheza Escudero violated their children's right to privacy when she accessed their Facebook accounts, downloaded copies of the pictures and showed their photos to school administrators.

School officials described the photos as being “lewd, obscene, and immoral."

A writ of habeas data is a legal remedy available to any person whose right to privacy in life, liberty or security is violated. It grants the petitioner a chance to question the data and to seek for its “updating, rectification, or destruction.”

Private photos

In its ruling, however, the SC said a regional trial court in Cebu did not err when it ruled that theSTC did not violate the students' right to privacy, adding the petitioners failed to present evidence to prove their claims.

"Without proof that they placed the photographs subject of this case within the ambit of their protected zone of privacy, they cannot now insist that they have an expectation of privacy with respect to the photographs in question," the SC division ruled.

The parents had insisted that their children's Facebook accounts were under “very private” or “Only Friends” setting, safeguarded with a password.

Their children’s disclosure was only limited since their profiles were not open to public viewing, added their parents.

They also said people who are not their children's Facebook friends, including the school officials, are barred from accessing their posts without their knowledge and consent.

The parents also wanted the school to identify all persons who saw the photos and to identify the persons in actual possession and control of the photos.

No unlawful means

But in its ruling, the SC gave more weight on Escudero's statement that she did not access the sanctioned students' Facebook accounts to obtain the photos.

She said it was her students who showed her the pictures of the girls clad in brassieres, smoking inside a bar and drinking hard liquor.

Escudero claimed that these students logged into their Facebook accounts and accessed the various photographs of their fellow students.

"In this regard, we cannot give much weight to the minors’ testimonies for one key reason: failure to question the students’ act of showing the photos to [Kristine Rose] Tigol, [STC’s Discipline-in-Charge]  disproves their allegation that the photos were viewable only by the five of them," the SC said.

"Respondents were mere recipients of what were posted. They did not resort to any unlawful means of gathering the information as it was voluntarily given to them by persons who had legitimate access to the said posts," the SC added.

The high court said that the ones at fault in the dissemination of the photos were the friends of the sanctioned minors.

"Curiously enough, however, neither the minors nor their parents imputed any violation of privacy against the students who showed the images to Escudero," the SC said.

The Court also ruled that even if the photos are viewable by "friends only," such setting does not assure absolute privacy.

Warning vs. social networking

In resolving the case, the high court also reminded social networking users to be cautious and  aware of the risks that they expose themselves to when they engage in cyberspace activities.

"Furthermore, and more importantly, information, otherwise private, voluntarily surrendered by them can be opened, read, or copied by third parties who may or may not be allowed access to such," the SC said.

Concurring with the ruling were Associate Justices Associate Justices Diosdado Peralta, Martin Villarama Jr., Bienvenido Reyes and Francis Jardeleza.

St. Theresa's College is a private Catholic school authorized to instill discipline among students under Department of Education (DepEd) Order No. 88 series of 2010—also known as the Revised Manual of Regulations for Private Schools in Basic Education.

Although Section 131 of the Revised Manual gives the administration of each private school the responsibility to maintain good discipline among students, such disciplinary authority is limited to students’ behavior inside the school campus or outside school premises but only as regards authorized school activities that the students are engaged in. —KBK, GMA News