Free Speech and Contempt of Court – I

This post first appeared on the CIS website, here)

On May 31, the Times of India reported some observations of a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court on its contempt powers. The Court noted that the power to punish for contempt was necessary to “secure public respect and confidence in the judicial process”, and also went on to add – rather absurdly – to lay down the requirements, in terms of timing, tone and tenor, of a truly “contrite” apology. This opinion, however, provides us with a good opportunity to examine one of the most under-theorised aspects of Indian free speech law: the contempt power.

Indeed, the contempt power finds express mention in the Constitution. Article 19(2) permits the government to impose reasonable restrictions upon the freedom of speech and expression “… in relation to contempt of court.” The legislation governing contempt powers is the 1971 Contempt of Courts Act. Contempt as a civil offence involves willful disobedience of a court order. Contempt as a criminal offence, on the other hand, involves either an act or expression (spoken, written or otherwise visible) that does one of three things: scandalises, or tends to scandalize, or lowers, or tends to lower, the authority of any court; prejudices or interferes (or tends to interfere) with judicial proceedings; or otherwise obstructs, or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice. As we can see, contempt can – broadly – take two forms: first, obstructing the proceedings of the Court by acts such as disobeying an order, holding up a hearing through absence or physical/verbal disturbance etc. This is straightforward enough. More problematically, however, contempt also covers instances of what we may call “pure speech”: words or other forms of expression about the Court that are punished for no other reason but their content. In particular, “scandalising the Court” seems to be particularly vague and formless in its scope and ambit.

“Scandalising the court” is a common law term. The locus classicus is the 1900 case of R v. Gray, which – in language that the Contempt of Courts Act has largely adopted – defined it as “any act done or writing published calculated to bring a Court or a judge of the Court into contempt, or to lower his authority.” The basic idea is that if abusive invective against the Court is permitted, then people will lose respect for the judiciary, and justice will be compromised.

It is obvious that this argument is flawed in many respects, and we shall analyse the Supreme Court’s problematic understanding of its contempt powers in the next post. First, however, it is instructive to examine the fate of contempt powers in the United States – which, like India, constitutionally guarantees the freedom of speech – and in England, whose model India has consciously followed.

America’s highly speech-protective Courts have taken a dim view of contempt powers. Three cases stand out. Bridges v. California involved a contempt of court accusation against a labour leader for calling a Court decision “outrageous”, and threatening a strike if it was upheld. Reversing his prior conviction, the Supreme Court noted that “public interest is much more likely to be kindled by a controversial event of the day than by a generalization, however penetrating, of the historian or scientist.Given the strong public interest, the burden of justifying restrictions upon this speech was particularly high. The Court identified two possible justifications: respect for the judiciary, and the orderly administration of justice. On the first, it observed that an enforced silence, however limited, solely in the name of preserving the dignity of the bench would probably engender resentment, suspicion, and contempt much more than it would enhance respect.” On the second, it held that since striking itself was entirely legal, it was no argument that the threat of a strike would illegally intimidate a judge and subvert the course of justice. Throughout the case, the Court stressed that unfettered speech on matters of public interest was of paramount value, and could only be curtailed if there was a “clear and present danger” that the substantially evil consequences would result out of allowing it.

Similarly, in Garrison v. Lousiana, an attorney accused certain judges of inefficiency and laziness. Reversing his conviction, the Supreme Court took note of the paramount public interest in a free flow of information to the people concerning public officials, their servants…. few personal attributes are more germane to fitness for office than dishonesty, malfeasance, or improper motivation, even though these characteristics may also affect the official’s private character.” Consequently, it held that only those statements could be punished that the author either knew were false, or were made with reckless disregard for the truth. And lastly, in Landmark Communications v. Virginia, the Court held that “the operations of the courts and the judicial conduct of judges are matters of utmost public concern”, and endorsed Justice Frankfurter’s prior statement, that “speech cannot be punished when the purpose is simply “to protect the court as a mystical entity or the judges as individuals or as anointed priests set apart from the community and spared the criticism to which in a democracy other public servants are exposed.”

What stands out here is the American Courts’ rejection of the ideas that preserving the authority of judges by suppressing certain forms of speech is an end in itself, and that the Courts must be insulated to some greater degree than other officials of government. Consequently, it must be shown that the impugned expression presents a clear and present danger to the administration of justice, before it can be punished.

Now to England. The last successful prosecution of the offence was in 1931. In 2012, the Law Commission published a paper on contempt powers, in which it expressly recommended abolishing the offence of “scandalising the Court”; its recommendations were accepted, and the offence was abolished in 2013. Admittedly, the offence remains on the statute books in many commonwealth nations, although two months ago – in April 2014 – the Privy Council gave it a highly circumscribed interpretation while adjudicating a case on appeal from Mauritius: there must, it held, be a “real risk of undermining public confidence in the administration of justice” (something akin to clear and present danger?), and the Prosecution must demonstrate that the accused either intended to do so, or acted in reckless disregard of whether or not he was doing so.

What is particularly interesting is the Law Commission’s reasoning in its recommendations. Tracing the history of the offence back to 18th century England, it noted that the original justification was to maintain a “haze of glory” around the Courts, and it was crucial that the Courts not only be universally impartial, but also perceived to be so. Consequently, the Law Commission observed that this language suggests that “to be impartial” and “to be universally thought so” are two independent requirements, implying that the purpose of the offence is not confined to preventing the public from getting the wrong idea about the judges, and that where there are shortcomings, it is equally important to prevent the public from getting the right idea.” Obviously, this was highly problematic.

The Law Commission also noted the adverse impact of the law on free speech: the well-known chilling effect, whereby people would self-censor even justified criticism. This was exacerbated by the vagueness of the offence, which left unclear the intent requirement, and the status of defences based on truth and public interest. The Law Commission was concerned, as well, about the inherently self-serving nature of the offence, which give judges the power to sit in judgment over speech and expression that was directly critical of them. Lastly, the Law Commission noted that the basic point of contempt powers was similar to that of seditious libel: to ensure the good reputation of the State (or, in the case of scandalising, the judges) by controlling what could be said about them. With the abolition of seditious libel, the raison d’être of scandalising the Court was also – now – weakened.

We see, therefore, that the United States has rejected sweeping contempt powers as unconstitutional. England, which created the offence that India incorporated into its law, stopped prosecuting people for it in 1931, and formally abolished it last year. And even when its hands have been bound by the law that it is bound the enforce, the Privy Council has interpreted the offence in as narrow a manner as possible, in order to remain solicitous of free speech concerns. Unfortunately, as we shall see in the next essay, all these developments have utterly passed our Courts by.

 

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