A petition for a writ of habeas data was filed in court yesterday by the three parents of two students of St. Theresa's College (STC) who were barred from attending their high school graduation rites last March.
Their lawyer Cornelio Mercado asked the court to mandate STC and its computer teacher Mylene Rheza Escudero to surrender the photos of the students which STC officials described as “lewd, obscene, and immoral.”
“The number of soft or printed copies made and the extent of its spread are known only to the respondents. (We believe) that the data, digital images or photos of (the students) were spread beyond STC grounds,” the lawyer said.
Named respondents in the petition were STC, Escudero, and unidentified persons who allegedly conspired with the computer teacher in procuring the photos from the Facebook accounts of the students.
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.”
STC lawyer Joan Largo said in text messages to Cebu Daily News that she hasn't seen the petition.
“I am certain though that these parents and students were apprised of all these photos at the start of the investigation,” she said.
Concerning allegations that the school intruded into the privacy of the girls, Largo said “that argument is wrong, factually and legally.”
Out of five girls barred from attending the graduation rites last March 30, four went to court.
In the ensuing weeks, two withdrew their lawsuits after reaching an amicable settlement with STC officials. Only two complainants are left.
The parents of these two girls alleged that their privacy was violated when the respondents got the photos from their Facebook account.
“The Facebook accounts of the petitioners' children were intruded,” Mercado said.
The petitioners wanted STC to state whose Facebook accounts were accessed and what data, information, and digital images, were saved or stored as soft copies.
They also asked the school to identify all persons who saw the photos and to identify the persons in actual possession and control of the photos.
The petitioners said they came to know what photos were viewed when STC and its school officials appended them in their memorandum and submitted it to the court.
“STC and its school officials said the photos they showed were only 'tip of the iceberg,' a sort of threat that they have more to expose,” Mercado said.
The parents of the girls believed there is nothing wrong or illegal in joining and posting photos on Facebook.
“The photos showing them (girls) in undergarments were taken for posterity before they changed their swimsuit on the occasion of a birthday beach party,” Mercado said.
He said the Facebook accounts of the girls were set on “very private” or “friends only” settings and safeguarded with a password.
Mercado said the students have a reasonable expectation that their privacy will be respected.
“The photos cannot just be used and reproduced without their consent,” the lawyer said.
At first, Mercado recounted that STC and its officials claimed they saw the photos on the Web.
The lawyer said Republic Act 9995 or the Anti-Photo and Video Voyeurism Act of 2009 states that “the state values the dignity and privacy of every human person and guarantees full respect for human rights.”
He said Escudero, whom they accuse of accessing many accounts and photos of the girls, should have adopted steps to stop the spread of the photos.
Mercado said Escudero's actuations allegedly prompted school officials to call the girls as “immoral,” banning them from the graduation rites.
In explaining the need for a writ of habeas data, Mercado cited former Chief Justice Reynato Puno who said “the Internet age had opened a new battlefield for citizens fighting to protect their right to privacy.”
“There's a pressing need to provide for judicial remedies that would allow the summary hearing of the unlawful use of data... and to remedy violations of the right to privacy,” Mercado said.
In a sworn statement earlier submitted to the Cebu City Prosecutors' Office, Escudero claimed that last February her students showed her some pictures of the students girls clad in brassieres.
Escudero, who is handling a computer literacy subject in STC, said her student told her that the girls on the photos are senior high school students who are her friends in Facebook.
Escudero and STC discipline-in-charge Kristine Rose-Tigol showed to the assistant principal some photos posted on the Facebook page of one of the students.
Escudero downloaded the photos in her flash drive.
The photos were shown to the girls who were then sanctioned for violating rules in the Daily Guide of the Students and the school's handbook. /Ador Vincent Mayol, Reporter