Judges should be mindful of their social media postings — Supreme Court

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THE Supreme Court admonished a judge from the La Union Regional Trial Court (RTC) “to be more circumspect in his professional and personal dealings in social media.”

The judge’s attention was called after posting photos showing him half-dressed and revealing his tattoos on his upper body on his Facebook account.

In a decision penned by Justice Henri Jean Paul Inting, the Court’s Second Division found the respondent judge guilty of Conduct Unbecoming of a Judge and issued a stern warning that a repetition of the same shall be dealt with more severely.

The Court once again reminds judges to mindful of what they communicate in social networking sites—regardless of whether it is a personal matter or a part of his or her judicial functions—as such content indubitably creates and contributes to the public’s perception not only of the concerned judges, but, more importantly, of the Judiciary as a whole,” the Court held.

The administrative case stemmed from the printed copies of the subject pictures received by the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA). The pictures were allegedly posted by the respondent judge and used as “cover photos” and “profile pictures” in the profile page of the judge’s Facebook account.

The respondent judge explained that his account was hacked in 2019, during which his account privacy setting was switched from private to public. He maintained that the pictures showing his tattoos were “exclusively meant for his own viewing pleasure and for his [Facebook] friends only and never posted for public consumption.”

The OCA found the respondent judge guilty of violating the New Code of Judicial Conduct, as well as OCA Circular No. 173-2017 when he posted the photos on his Facebook account and held him liable for Conduct Unbecoming of a Judge for his improper behavior. It found him guilty and recommended a P15,000 fine and that he be reprimanded with a strong warning.

The Court adopted the findings of the OCA but modified the penalties.

The Court agreed with the OCA that the respondent judge “had breached his duty to avoid impropriety, or even just the appearance of impropriety, when he posted the subject pictures showing his half-dressed body and tattooed torso on his Facebook account that eventually became readily accessible to the general public.”

Citing its 2014 ruling in Lorenzana v. Judge Austria, the Court held that “while judges are not prohibited from becoming members of and from taking part in social networking activities, we remind them that they do not thereby shed off their status as judges.” In Lorenzana, the respondent judge was found guilty of impropriety when she posted photos of herself wearing an “off-shouldered” suggestive dress on a social networking site and made it available for public viewing.

The Court clarified that the impropriety relates solely on the judges’ “act of posting the subject picture on social media, and it has absolutely nothing to do with his choice to have tattoos on his body.” It added: “Simply put, by posting the pictures on Facebook, [the respondent judge] placed himself in a situation where he, and the status he holds as a sitting judge, became the object of the public’s criticism and ridicule.”

The Court also dismissed the respondent judge’s defense of relying on the friends only privacy setting, citing its 2014 ruling in Vivares v. St. Theresa’s College where the Court held that “setting a post’s or profile detail’s privacy to ‘Friends’ is no assurance that it can no longer be viewed by another user who is not Facebook friends with the source of the content.” In the same case, the Court warned social media users of the risks involved when sharing content in cyberspace.

The Court also noted the respondent judge’s admission that he had a “sizeable” number of Facebook friends who can access his daily posts, including the subject photos, and even share content on his account profile page.

Guided by the ruling in Vivares, [respondent judge]’s Facebook account, therefore, cannot be deemed to be truly private, even assuming arguendo that his account privacy setting was actually changed without his consent from ‘friends’ only to public when his account was purportedly hacked in 2019,” held the Court. It added: “The Court is not unaware that [respondent judge]’s act of posting the subject pictures on his Facebook account would no doubt seem harmless and inoffensive if it was done by an ordinary member of the public. As the visible personification of law and justice, however, judges are held to higher standards of conduct and thus must accordingly comport themselves.”

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