Busy Day for Free Speech in the Supreme Court: Defamation and Pornography

Subramanian Swamy v. Union of India

The Supreme Court bench of Justices Dipak Misra and Prafulla Pant today heard a bunch of almost two-dozen petitions, which challenge the constitutional validity of criminal defamation (sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code). Among the more prominent ones are petitions from Mr. Subramanian Swamy, Mr. Rahul Gandhi, Mr. Rajdeep Sardesai and Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, whose government incidentally days after him challenging the validity of criminal defamation came out with a circular “to deal with instances of defamatory imputations covered under Sec 499/500 of IPC against the CM and ministers”.

Attorney General Mr. Mukul Rohatgi and Additional Solicitor General Mr. PS Narasimha represented the Union of India. The Attorney General at the outset requested the court to refer the matter to a constitutional bench as per Article 145(3) of the Indian Constitution. The bench however did not seem very inclined and provided examples of multiple cases in the recent past including Suresh Kumar Koushal and Shreya Singhal which were decided by a two judge bench. In response the Attorney General submitted that if in other instances the correct course was not followed, that should not be a reason to not refer the matter in the present case. Mr. TR Andhyarujina, who has been appointed as an amicus in the case also supported the Attorney General’s contention. The Court has allowed the Union of India to raise this issue in their final arguments and has agreed to answer it in the final judgment.

The bench clarified that it will only be dealing with the issue of constitutionality of sections 499 and 500 of IPC and will not look into how these sections are applied. The bench also stated that it cannot abolish a provision as that is the job of the parliament, it can only look at the constitutionality of the provision.

Mr. Andhyarujina informed the court that among the various terms mentioned under Article 19(2) of the Constitution there is no judgment on the issue of defamation and what the court needs to decide is whether the right to freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) is inhibited by defamation being a penal provision.

The Attorney General also dealt with the issue of criminal and civil defamation and stated that a civil suit for damages in such instances keeps pending for years and there is hardly any award provided, nor is there any deterrence effect whereas criminal provision at least has some deterrence effect. He also compared the situation to the English system and was supported by Mr. Andhyarujina and both of them stated that unlike the India system its easy to approach the civil court for damages in such cases and obtain a relief whereas in India the system should be kept in mind. However, the bench reiterated that it will only examine the constitutionality of the sections and the system that exists for civil defamation and the time taken to decide such suits will have no bearing on that.

Mr. Andhyarujina stated that theses sections are used as an inhibitor for freedom of speech and expression specially in political context, to which the court stated that different people have different views regarding the validity of the provisions under Article 19(2) including the two amicus appointed by the Court and the matter should be carefully considered.

The bench specifically asked the amicus to assist the court with two questions. Firstly, whether sections 499 and 500 can be read down if required and secondly, whether the fact that there has been a trend of some countries abolishing criminal defamation will have any impact on this court deciding the constitutional validity of a statutory provisions in light of our written and organic constitution.

The court has directed the Union of India to file a counter by 11th July and all the petitioners to file their propositions of law by 14th July which is the next date of hearing.

Kamlesh Vaswani v. Union of India

The Kamlesh Vaswani matter that has asked the Court to direct the Government to block all pornography over the Internet came up before the bench headed by the Chief Justice today. The petitioner stated that they have filed an affidavit highlighting the issue of revenge porn. The Court agreed with the seriousness of the matter and agreed to look at the issue of revenge porn. However, the Chief Justice refused to passed any interim order in the matter and stated that the Court cannot interfere in what adults do inside the four walls of their house and doing so may be violate of their Article 21 rights. The bench has asked the Union to file it’s reply in four weeks.

(Sarvjeet is a Project Manager & Fellow at the Centre)

Supreme Court adjourns hearing of Ratan Tata’s Privacy Petition

The writ petition (398/2010) filed by Mr. Ratan Tata against the violation of his right to privacy came up for hearing before a Supreme Court bench on 26th August 2014. According to the cause list the matter was listed before a three judge bench of Justices HL Dattu, SA Bobde and Abhay Manohar Sapre. However, due to administrative reasons the composition of the bench was changed from 3 to 2 judges.

The new bench composed of Justices HL Dattu and SA Bobde agreed that the case involves important questions of law with respect to Articles 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. The bench has listed the matter for directions before a 3 judge bench on 9th September 2014.

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Mr. Tata had filed the petition after his conversations with corporate lobbyist Niira Radia were leaked and published in some magazines and on their websites in 2010. Tata has termed it an invasion of his right to privacy. The petition seeks to protect the privacy of individuals and asks the court to frame guidelines on conversations tapped by government agencies. A statement issued by Tata Sons at that time stated that “Mr Ratan Tata has filed this writ petition on a matter of principle. He believes privacy is an important right for every individual and is keenly following the progress of this case”. Senior Counsel Mr. Harish Salve is representing Mr. Tata in the matter.

(Sarvjeet is a Project Manager and Research Fellow at the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi)