Free Speech and Newspaper Regulation – II: More on the Idea of Freedom

In the last post, we discussed whether, in the context of Sakal Newspapers, an economic inability to enter the newspaper market should be classified as lack of freedom or not. We suggested that Hayekian liberalism, which treats the exclusionary operation of the market as equivalent to a natural catastrophe such as an avalanche or a forest fire, and the consequent incapacity to access it as equivalent to a mere physical inability (such as an inability to fly unaided), suffers from certain flaws, and that in any event, there are strong reasons for holding that the Indian Constitution does not subscribe to such a philosophy. In this post, we shall examine other arguments against holding that the exclusion of small and new newspapers from the market does not constitute a lack of freedom.

Rawls and Berlin distinguish between freedom and the ability to use it. They argue that lack of means/resources falls into the latter category. Because of monetary incapacity, the small newspapers involved in the Sakal case were unable to meaningfully use their freedom of expression; it had no value to them, was worth nothing. But the freedom yet existed, and therefore, the status quo, no matter how unjust it was otherwise, was not a violation of the freedom of expression.

There are a number of fine terminological distinctions at play here, but the core question is this: if we accept the definition of freedom as the absence of interference by others, then does lack of money as a resource qualify as “unfreedom”? In Freedom and Money, G.A. Cohen argues that it does. For Cohen, in our society, money ‘structures’ freedom. In other words, if I want access to a certain good (Cohen’s example is a train ticket from place X to Y), then I can have it if I pay the asking rate; if I do not pay, and still try to access it (e.g., I board the train without a ticket), I shall be physically restrained from doing so. Therefore, without money, I will be subject to interference by others in accessing what I could otherwise have accessed had I had the money. Hence, absence of money means a lack of freedom. Or, to put it in another way, money serves to remove interference which would otherwise have operated without it. Therefore, in Cohen’s words, “therefore money confers freedom, rather than merely the ability to use it, even if freedom is equated with absence of interference.”

If Cohen is right, then the argument ends at this stage. Even if Cohen’s argument fails, however, we have to ask a further question: does the right to freedom of speech and expression carry with it a concomitant right to reasonable access (even if it does not come within the “definition” of freedom itself)? In the Indian situation, the answer is an unequivocal “yes”. Specifically, in the election cases, that we shall examine in a future post, the Court has held that the right to vote (which is an embodiment of the right to freedom of speech and expression) is “meaningless” without, for instance, secret ballots or background information on candidates. In other words, what is being protected by 19(1)(a) is not the formal expression of the right, but everything ancillary that makes it meaningful. In this context, then, it seems clear that inability of access certainly renders the right illusory, and that the right of access if therefore implicitly contained within 19(1)(a).

The third argument holds that every legal system must – by definition – settle upon a certain distribution of freedoms that elevate certain freedoms to the level of protection, and exclude others. For instance, if my legal system contains the right to private property, then not only do I confer upon private property owners the freedom to hold and dispose off their property according to their choice, but I also limit the freedom of every other person to trespass upon or in any other way use the property of another. Private use must necessarily exclude common enjoyment. Like any other freedom, the freedom of speech and expression is subject to similar distributional decisions. On this view then, the Sakal decision tells us that the freedom of speech and expression, when it comes to newspapers, actually means “the freedom of speech and expression under prevailing market conditions.” This would then justify the Court’s decision prohibiting the government from bringing about a change in the market conditions that, concomitantly, would bring about a change in the initial distribution of the freedom.

Do we have any reason for believing that our Constitution subscribes to this philosophy? There is no evidence that supports this point of view; indeed, certain observations made by the Court in the Cricket Association of West Bengal case(which we shall have occasion to discuss in a later post) appear to undermine it. In that case, which was about the distribution of broadcast frequencies, the Court observed:

“It is true that to own a frequency for the purposes of broadcasting is a costly affair and even when there are surplus or unlimited frequencies, only the affluent few will own them and will be in a position to use it to subserve their own interest by manipulating news and views. That also poses a danger to the freedom of speech and expression of the have-nots by denying them the truthful information on all sides of an issue which is so necessary to form a sound view on any subject.

And:

“The monopoly in broadcasting and telecasting is often claimed by the Government to utilise the public resources in the form of the limited frequencies available for the benefit of the society at large. It is justified by the Government to prevent the concentration of the frequencies in the hands of the rich few who can monopolise the dissemination of views and information to suit their interests and thus in fact to control and manipulate public opinion in effect smothering the right to freedom of speech and expression and freedom of information of others. The claim to monopoly made on this ground may, however, lose all its raison d’etre if either any section of the society is unreasonably denied an access to broadcasting or the governmental agency claims exclusive right to prepare and relay programmes.”

When we read these observations along with the repeated insistence of the Courts (discussed in previous posts) that a fundamental point of the freedom of speech is to sustain democracy, that thrives on a free flow of information and ideas from all sections, as well as the Dworkinian principle of equal concern and respect, that mandates according to everyone an equal opportunity to shape the prevailing moral and social environment, we have strong reasons, grounded in constitutional precedent as well as political philosophy, that speak against reading the right to free speech as a right within prevailing market conditions; because that takes no account of the damaging and exclusionary impact of monopolies.

At other points in the Cricket Association of West Bengal case, the Court makes observations distinguishing broadcast media from print media in light of governmental control over one and the operation of market forces in another. This brings us to the last objection: that the interference with freedom here is by private entities using market conditions, and not by the government. But what that argument crucially ignores is that the structure of the market, far from existing in a state of nature, is constituted by the government-imposed legal system. The range, nature and scope of permissible transactions within the market is a direct function of the legal system; therefore, if the unfreedom of small newspapers is attributable to the prevailing market conditions, then – given that the market is constituted by the legal structure imposed by the government – it is not a stretch to attribute such unfreedom to the government itself. Which, in turn, makes it not only optional for the government to remedy that, but obligatory.

To sum up: we have argued that the inability of small and new newspapers to enter the market because of economic conditions, in the circumstances of Sakal, constituted an absence of freedom in the sense of Article 19(1)(a), that is attributable to governmental action. That does not, of course, mean that Sakal was wrongly decided, because the impugned laws certainly restricted the freedom of existing large newspapers, and it would take a complex balancing exercise to adjudicate upon the validity of those laws. Nonetheless, it is submitted that the Court was mistaken in describing the issue as one of “public interest”, and rejecting it on 19(2) grounds: the real issue turned upon Article 19(1)(a), and the meaning ‘freedom’.

In subsequent posts, we shall apply the arguments made here to the other important newspaper regulation cases decided by the Supreme Court.

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1 Comment

Filed under Free Speech, Newspaper regulation

One response to “Free Speech and Newspaper Regulation – II: More on the Idea of Freedom

  1. Pingback: Free Speech and Newspaper Regulation – IV: Ideas of Democracy and Freedom in Mathew J.’s Bennett Coleman Dissent | Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy

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