The attention of this newspaper is drawn to a front-page lead story in its May 23, 2019 edition headlined “Halting Gongloe ‘Was in Line with Supreme Court’s Protocol”.
According to the writer of the story, Abednego Davies, quoting a release from the Supreme Court, says Chief Justice Korkpor’s gag action against LNBA President Tiawan Gongloe was in keeping with the protocol of the Court.
“It is an established rule and protocol of the Supreme Court that, at the official opening of each Term of Court or at formal judicial program held at the court, those who speak in response to the Chief Justice’s addresses or remarks must confine themselves to what the Chief Justice has spoken on”.
The press release from the Supreme Court, which came in the wake of the Daily Observer’s May 22, 2019 editorial, headlined, “You have Indeed Gravely Erred Mr. Chief Justice”, appears to have been driven by expressed public concerns about the action of the Chief Justice during the seating program of newly appointed Associate Justice, Yussif Kaba.
The recurring theme, it would appear, is the question of freedom of expression and thought. And that raises the question whether established Supreme Court rules and protocols take precedence over the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia, particularly those provisions protecting freedom of thought and expression.
From all indications, the remarks by Bar Association President Tiawan Gongloe must have angered the Chief Justice and triggered off such knee jerk response that tripped the constitutional wire. Established rules and protocols in dissonance with the Constitution can not be used to justify arbitrariness, not even by a long stretch.
The issue at bar here is the fundamental right to freedom of expression and responsibility for same thereof and not whether Bar President Gongloe’s remarks were inappropriate or not.
Granted, even if his (Gongloe’s) remarks were inappropriate, did such remarks rob the Chief Justice of the opportunity to respond to what the Supreme Court considered inappropriate? In the opinion of this newspaper, fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution especially those enshrined in Article 15 a, b, c, d, e make mincemeat of spurious arguments suggesting that rules, protocols, and laws take precedence over the Constitution.
More besides, those who administer at the “altars of justice” in Liberia should not and cannot afford to be seen as intolerant or hostile to rights guaranteed under the Constitution. They should always be guided by the Voltairean principle: “I wholly disapprove of what you say—and will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The Daily Observer holds the view yet, unchanged, that Chief Justice Korkpor’s action violated provisions of the Constitution guaranteeing and protecting freedom of thought and expression. In this regard, no rule, law, protocol or special arrangement can supersede the Constitution. For reasons of clarity, those relevant provisions of the Constitution referenced are quoted here below:
a) Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof. This right shall not be curtailed, restricted or enjoined by government save during an emergency declared in accordance with this Constitution.
b) The right encompasses the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to knowledge. It includes freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom to receive and impart knowledge and information and the right of libraries to make such knowledge available. It includes non-interference with the use of the mail, telephone and telegraph. It likewise includes the right to remain silent.
c) In pursuance of this right, there shall be no limitation on the public right to be informed about the government and its functionaries.
d) Access to state owned media shall not be denied because of any disagreement with or dislike of the ideas express. Denial of such access may be challenged in a court of competent jurisdiction.
e) This freedom may be limited only by judicial action in proceedings grounded in defamation or invasion of the rights of privacy and publicity or in the commercial aspect of expression in deception, false advertising and copyright infringement”.
In closing this editorial, this newspaper begs to differ with Justice Korkpor and must warn of the implications of setting dangerous precedents. As innocuous as the action of the Chief Justice may appear, it is important to ask: just where does this all end since, from hard experience, we know that one arbitrary behavior leads to another and yet another?
Thus, we beg to differ, Mr. Chief Justice for this newspaper cannot accept that Court rules and protocols take precedence over the Constitution. Liberians have paid a very high price for the freedoms enjoyed today and are not prepared to accept anything less. As Nelson Mandela reminds us “there is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires”.