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Saturday, October 21, 2006

The blight of billboards

SEPARATE OPINIONSeparate Opinion : The blight of billboards
By Isagani CruzColumnistInquirer
Posted date: October 21, 2006

LIKE many other columnists, I also wrote against billboards and asked that they be banned. In fact, I did it twice, the first on March 3, 2003 and the second on Oct. 23, 2004. Nobody listened until Typhoon “Milenyo” howled the message loud and clear. Now everybody is blaming the government for having done nothing. The advertising lobby must have been tremendous.
Somebody even suggested that banning the billboards might violate freedom of expression, which also applies to advertisements. True, but even this precious freedom is subject to the police power. This is briefly defined as the inherent power of the State to promote the public welfare by restraining or regulating the use of liberty and property.

Because of the increasing complexity of the modern society, the reach of the police power has correspondingly expanded. Activities or things regarded before as exclusively private are now considered subject to government regulation as long as they affect the public interest directly or even only indirectly.

In People v. Pomar, 46 Phil. 440, decided in 1924, the Supreme Court held that an employment contract was a private agreement that could not be controlled by the State even for the purpose of protecting the worker. Now such intrusion is allowed and even required under the social justice policy. The compulsions of the police power have practically repealed the prohibition against the impairment of the obligation of contracts also mandated in the Bill of Rights.
The General Welfare Clause so familiar to law students enumerates but not exclusively the matters affecting the public interest and therefore subject to the compulsions of the police power. These include the people’s right to health and safety, peace and order, comfort and convenience, morality, economic prosperity, cultural enrichment, technological and scientific advancement, among many other desiderata of good government.

As early as in the 1915 case of Churchill and Tait v. Rafferty, 32 Phil. 581, our Supreme Court had already held that the promotion of aesthetic values was also within the embrace of the police power. Interestingly, the subject was billboards, and the question was whether or not the government could prohibit them when offensive to the sense of sight. The Court said it could.
To begin with, it held that although billboards were erected on private property, their usefulness depended on their attractiveness to the people on the public highways. “Ostensibly located on private property,” Justice Trent observed, “the real and sole value of the billboard is its proximity to the public thoroughfares. Hence, we conceive that the regulation of billboards and their restriction is not so much a regulation of private property as it is a regulation of the use of the streets and other public thoroughfares.”

On the more serious issue of the purpose of the restriction, the Court had the following to say:
“Without entering into the realm of psychology, we think it quite demonstrable that sight is as valuable to any human being as any of his other senses, and the proper ministration to this sense conduces as much to his contentment as the care bestowed upon the sense of hearing or smell. Objects may be offensive to the eye as well as to the nose or ear. Man’s aesthetic feelings are consistently appealed to through his sense of sight… Why, then, should the Government not interpose to protect from annoyance this most valuable of man’s senses as readily as to protect him from offensive noises and smells?”

The present campaign against billboards affects not only the people’s artistic sensibilities but the hundreds of lives that may again be lost or injured and the millions of pesos of property that may be destroyed by the fury of another typhoon like the recent Milenyo that devastated many parts of Luzon. And let us not forget the natural beauty of the trees and the verdant landscapes concealed from the appreciative eyes of the beholder by the obtrusive billboards.

Praise then to civic-spirited citizens like Consuelo D. Sison who at age 86 still had the energy and resolve to persuade the government of Quezon City to adopt a new ordinance to impose stricter measures against the resurgence of billboards. These nuisances have exposed, at a terrible loss of lives and property, the unctuous obedience of our government to the demands of commercial advertising over the higher interests of the people.

Metropolitan Manila Development Authority Chair Bayani Fernando should not be included among his mercenary colleagues because he is the most militant opponent of the blight of billboards. Many if not all of the local officials in Metro Manila, especially those from the cities most uglified by billboards, have not exercised similar concern for their constituents, probably because of the more persuasive inducements of the billboard advertisers.

The removal of the billboards will deprive red-blooded Filipino males of the joy of gawking at the beautiful billboard models selling lingerie and tractors. What I will especially relish is the tearing down of those billboards advertising an insurance company with the commonplace face of a man who probably thinks he has the same magnetism as a seductive young starlet.

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