Free Speech and Public Order – II: Film Censorship and the Rangarajan Case

In the previous post, we discussed Scanlon’s liberal theory of free speech, which aims to reconcile restrictions in the interests of public order with individual autonomy and responsibility. One interesting area where the Court’s engagement with the issue can be examined is that of film censorship.

S. Rangarajan v. P. Jagjivan Ram (1989) is an important case that deserves close study. A Division Bench of the Madras High Court revoked the U-Certificate (“suitable for all ages”) granted to a Tamil film called Ore Oru Gramathile (“In One Village”), that dealt with the controversy surrounding affirmative action and the problems of caste. This was challenged before a three-judge bench of the Court. The State made two arguments: first, that the depiction of the government’s reservation policy was ‘biased’; and secondly, that the reaction in the State of Tamil Nadu was bound to be “volatile“.

The Court was concerned – as in the prior case of K.A. Abbas v. Union of India – and in light of the clearly contrary decision in Romesh Thappar (discussed here) – to justify the possibility of pre-censorship. In K.A. Abbas, it had been argued that films, in no substantial way, differed from other media of communication – and if, per Romesh Thappar, pre-censorship was unjustified in the case of newspapers, so it must be in the case of film. While the Court then declined to address the argument, basing its decision on general principles of free speech and pre-censorship, in this case, it ran the gauntlet, and held that film did, indeed, differ from other media. In an interesting paragraph, the Court held that films could not function in “the free marketplace” like newspapers. Why? Because:

“Movie motivates thought and action and assures a high degree of attention and retention. It makes its impact simultaneously arousing the visual and aural senses. The focusing of an intense light on a screen with the dramatizing of facts and opinion makes the ideas more effective. The combination of act and speech, sight and sound in semi-darkness of the theatre with elimination of all distracting ideas will have an impact in the minds of spectators.” (Paragraph 10)

The Court went on to cite an academic study according to which “continual exposure to films of a similar character” would significantly affect the attitude of an individual or a group. On this basis, it deemed pre-censorship necessary. We can immediately see that this approach is at odds with Scanlon’s autonomy-based argument: in Scanlon’s terms, the Court is taking away the autonomous individual’s right to use reason in order to persuade and to be persuaded, merely on the grounds of the efficacy of the mechanism. This is buttressed by the Court’s conclusion that the purpose of the Censorship guidelines – indeed, the purpose of Art. 19(2), which the Court claimed the guidelines were based upon – is maintaining the “values and standards of society“. Now, the term “values and standards of society” is excessively vague, and cries out for clarification (Do you take opinion polls? Ask the man on the New Delhi Metro? Organise a referendum? Do “values” refer only to the deepest moral convictions that form one’s personality and defines one’s community, or do they include any kind of opinion, whatever its strength or nature?). But more importantly, as we have discussed before, values and standards are in constant flux and motion, and expression – as Raz points out – is the fundamental vehicle through which transient values are debated, argued over, dissented from, attacked and ultimately, changed. On what basis, then, does the Court grant the moral majority of a moment the power to crystallise, through legal sanctions, its own set of opinion against the processes of change? And how is this consistent with the individual’s right to shape her moral environment in a free society through the means of expression?

The underlying basis of the Court’s opinion is revealed a few paragraphs later: “moral values in particular,” it said, “should not be allowed to be sacrificed in the guise of social change or cultural assimilation.” Listing a series of “great sages and thinkers“, literary works like the Thirukkural, and “Indian” concepts like dharam, the Court observed that “these are the bedrock of our civilization and should not be allowed to be shaken by unethical standards.” (Paragraph 21) In essence, the Court enunciates, by necessary implication, a certain idea of a homogeneous Indian identity, stretching back into antiquity, defined by a set of values imbued with a sense of continuity and permanence. Historians, no doubt, will have much to say about that claim. We can remain neutral on the point, and still question the Court’s insistence on insulating that set of values – assuming it exists – against dissent or attack.

The Court’s analysis of the film itself contains some particularly disturbing elements. One particular scene was singled out for condemnation because it – ostensibly – sent out a “poisonous message” to the “depressed classes” not to educate their children. The Court examined the scene and found on fact that the message of the scene was the opposite (paragraph 26); a second controversy turned upon whether one of the characters in the film stated that Dr. Ambedkar did not work for equality, and the Court, dealing with the niceties of Tamil translation, held that in fact the heroine did not make that statement (paragraph 27); the implication being – and stated as much, on both occasions – that had either of the two accusations been correct, pre-censorship would have been justified.

The Court’s approach to these claims is particularly interesting, because it suggests that making factually false claims (education is not a good, Ambedkar did not work for equality) is a ground for censorship. This echoes the basic idea that the goal of free speech is to discover the truth. In its response to the third objection against, the film, however – that by its criticism of reservations and praise of colonial rule, it would generate a “volatile reaction” in Tamil Nadu, the Court expressly disclaims the truth-seeking justification for free speech.

“The different views are allowed to be expressed by proponents and opponents not because they are correct, or valid but because there is freedom in this country for expressing even differing views on any issue.” (Paragraph 38)

Immediately after that, the Court quoted Mikeljohn’s self-governance theory of free speech, emphasising again that “conflicting views may be expressed, must be expressed, not because they are valid, but because they are relevant.” It went on to quote a series of American First Amendment writers before reining itself in and returning to 19(2), emphasizing that:

“The expression of thought should be intrinsically dangerous to the public interests. In other words, the expression should be inseparably locked up with the action contemplated like the equivalent of a “spark in a powder keg”. (Paragraph 42)

On this basis, the Court dismissed the public order objection (Paragraphs 47 and 48). Here it seems that the Court did, indeed, accept the liberal-autonomy justification: it stressed that the content of the message communicated was irrelevant, and that threats of violence could not compel a public order restriction. These twin claims can only be reconciled upon a philosophical rubric based on ideas of individual responsibility in judging and acting upon any message; the the powder-keg analogy is a classic case of situations or diminished responsibility (as discussed in the last post), where these considerations do not apply.

But that raises a serious problem: “public order” and “morality” occur next to each other in Article 19(2); yet, the Court seems to have adopted different tests of causation in each case. Content – and what disruptions of public order it may provoke – is deemed irrelevant; but content – in terms of the change it brings about in the “values and standards” of society is deemed to be of decisive relevance! It is not “in the interests” of public order to protect it by censoring content that will provoke its breach; but it is in the interests of morality to preserve it by censoring content that will provoke its modification or change. The Court ostensibly accepts political liberalism in the case of public order, but rejects it in the case of morality.

It is difficult to see what overall principle is at work here. We must therefore keep S. Rangarajan in the background for the moment, and look for consistency elsewhere.



Filed under Film Censorship, Free Speech, Public Order

5 responses to “Free Speech and Public Order – II: Film Censorship and the Rangarajan Case

  1. Will comment on the judgments in a bit. just a small thing — Thirukkural is not a “concept” like dharma. It is a literary work by Thiruvalluvar.

  2. Pingback: Free Speech and Public Order – III: Causation, Respecting Autonomy and the Lohia Case | Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy

  3. Hi Gautam, question from reading Offend (Conclusions, page 327). Between paternalism and autonomy, isn’t the latter baked into the Preamble where ‘We the people … give to ourselves this Constitution’?

    Thanks in advance.

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