Free Speech and Contempt of Court – II

(This post first appeared on the CIS website)

Towards the end of the last post, we saw how the Law Commission traced the genealogy of the “scandalising the Court” offence, inasmuch as it sought to protect the “standing of the judiciary”, to that of seditious libel. The basic idea is the same: if people are allowed to criticise state institutions in derogatory terms, then they can influence their fellow-citizens who, in turn, will lose respect for those institutions. Consequently, the authority of those institutions will be diminished, and they will be unable to effectively perform their functions. Hence, we prevent that eventuality by prohibiting certain forms of speech when it concerns the functioning of the government (seditious libel) or the Courts (scandalising the Court). This, of course, often ties the judges into knots, in determining the exact boundary between strident – but legitimate – criticism, and sedition/scandalising the Court.

Seditious libel, of course, went out in the United States with the repeal of the Sedition Act in 1800, and was abolished in the England in 2009. Notoriously, it still remains on the statute books in India, in the form of S. 124A of the Indian Penal Code. An examination of the Supreme Court’s sedition jurisprudence would, therefore, be apposite. Section 124A makes it an offence to bring or attempt to bring into hatred or contempt, or excite or attempt to excite, disaffection, towards the government. The locus classicus is Kedar Nath Singh v. Union of India. I have analysed the case in detail elsewhere, but briefly, Kedar Nath Singhlimited the scope of 124A to incitement to violence, or fostering public disorder, within the clear terms of Article 19(2). In other words, prosecution for sedition, if it was to succeed, would have to satisfy the Court’s public order jurisprudence under Article 19(2). The public order test itself – as we discussed previously on this blog, in a post about Section 66A – was set out in highly circumscribed terms in Ram Manohar Lohia’s Case, which essentially required a direct and imminent degree of proximity between the speech or expression, and the breach of public order (in that case, the Court refused to sustain the conviction of a speaker who expressly encouraged an audience to break the law). Subsequently, in S. Rangarajan v. P. Jagjivan Ram, the Court noted that the relation ought to be like that of a “spark in a powder keg” – something akin to inciting an enraged mob to immediate violence. Something that the Court has clearly rejected is the argument that it is permissible to criminalise speech and expression simply because its content might lower the authority of the government in the eyes of the public, which, in turn, could foster a disrespect for law and the State, and lead to breaches of public order.

Unfortunately, however, when it comes to contempt and scandalising, the Court has adopted exactly the chain of reasoning that it has rejected in the public order cases. As early as 1953, in Aswini Kumar Ghose v. Arabinda Bose, the Court observed that “it is obvious that if an impression is created in the minds of the public that the Judges in the highest Court in the land act on extraneous considerations in deciding cases, the confidence of the whole community in the administration of justice is bound to be undermined and no greater mischief than that can possibly be imagined.”

Subsequently, in D.C. Saxena v. CJI, the Court held that “Any criticism about judicial system or the judges which hampers the administration of justice or which erodes the faith in the objective approach of the judges and brings administration of justice to ridicule must be prevented. The contempt of court proceedings arise out of that attempt. Judgments can be criticised. Motives to the judges need not be attributed. It brings the administration of justice into disrepute. Faith in the administration of justice is one of the pillars on which democratic institution functions and sustains.” Notice the chain of causation the Court is working with here: it holds faith in the administration of justice as a necessary pre-requisite to the administration of justice, and prohibits criticismthat would cause other people to lose their faith in the judiciary. This is exactly akin to a situation in which I make an argument advocating Marxist theory, and I am punished because some people, on reading my article, might start to hold the government in contempt, and attempt to overthrow it by violent means. Not only is it absurd, it is also entirely disrespectful of individual autonomy: it is based on the assumption that the person legally and morally responsibly for a criminal act is not the actor, but the person who convinced the actor through words and arguments, to break the law – as though individuals are incapable of weighing up competing arguments and coming to decisions of their own accord. Later on, in the same case, the Court holds that scandalising includes “all acts which bring the court into disrepute or disrespect or which offend its dignity or its majesty or challenge its authority.” As we have seen before, however, disrepute or disrespect of an institution cannot in itself be a ground for punishment, unless there is something more. That something more is actual disruption of justice, which is presumably caused by people who have lost their confidence in the judiciary, but in eliding disrepute/disrespect with obstruction of justice, the Court entirely fails to consider the individual agency involved in crossing that bridge, the agency that is not that of the original speaker. This is why, again, in its sedition cases, the Court has gone out of its way to actually require a proximate relation between “disaffection” and public order breaches, in order to save the section from unconstitutionality. Its contempt jurisprudence, on the other hand, shows no such regard. It is perhaps telling that the Court, one paragraph on, adopts the “blaze of glory” formulation that was used in an 18th century, pre-democratic English case.

Indeed, the Court draws an express analogy with sedition, holding that “malicious or slanderous publication inculcates in the mind of the people a general disaffection and dissatisfaction on the judicial determination and indisposes in their mind to obey them.”Even worse, it then takes away even the basic protection of mens rea, holding that all that matters is the effect of the impugned words, regardless of the intention/recklessness with which they were uttered. The absence of mens rea, along with the absence of any meaningful proximity requirement, makes for a very dangerous cocktail – an offence that can cover virtually any activity that the Court believes has a “tendency” to certain outcomes: Therefore, a tendency to scandalise the court or tendency to lower the authority of the court or tendency to interfere with or tendency to obstruct the administration of justice in any manner or tendency to challenge the authority or majesty of justice, would be a criminal contempt. The offending act apart, any tendency if it may lead to or tends to lower the authority of the court is a criminal contempt. Any conduct of the contemnor which has the tendency or produces a tendency to bring the judge or court into contempt or tends to lower the authority of the court would also be contempt of the court.”

The assumption implicit in these judgments – that the people need to be protected from certain forms of speech, because they are incompetent at making up their own minds, in a reasonable manner, about it – was made express in Arundhati Roy’s Case, in 2002. After making observations about how confidence in the Courts could not be allowed to be “tarnished” at any cost, the Court noted that “the respondent has tried to cast an injury to the public by creating an impression in the mind of the people of thisbackward country regarding the integrity, ability and fairness of the institution of judiciary”, observed that the purpose of the offence was to protect the (presumably backward) public by maintaining its confidence in the judiciary, which had been enacted keeping in mind “the ground realities and prevalent socio-economic system in India, the vast majority of whose people are poor, ignorant, uneducated, easily liable to be misled. But who acknowledly (sic) have the tremendous faith in the dispensers of Justice.” So easy, indeed, to mislead, that there was no need for any evidence to demonstrate it: “the well-known proposition of law is that it punishes the archer as soon as the arrow is shot no matter if it misses to hit the target. The respondent is proved to have shot the arrow, intended to damage the institution of the judiciary and thereby weaken the faith of the public in general and if such an attempt is not prevented, disastrous consequences are likely to follow resulting in the destruction of rule of law, the expected norm of any civilised society.”

 

The American legal scholar, Vince Blasi, has outlined a “pathological perspective” of free speech. According to him, heightened protection of speech – even to the extent of protecting worthless speech – is important, because when the government passes laws to regulate speech that is hostile towards it, it will, in all likelihood, over-regulate purely out of self-interest, sometimes even unconsciously so. This is why, if the Courts err, they ought to err on the side of speech-protection, because it is quite likely that the government has over-estimated public order and other threats that stem out of hostile speech towards government itself. The pathological perspective is equally – if not more – applicable in the realm of contempt of Court, because here the Court is given charge of regulating speech hostile towards itself. Keenly aware of the perils of speech suppression that lie in such situations, we have seen that the United States and England have abolished the offence, and the Privy Council has interpreted it extremely narrowly.

The Indian Supreme Court, however, has gone in precisely the opposite direction. It has used the Contempt of Court statute to create a strict-liability criminal offence, with boundlessly manipulable categories, which is both overbroad and vague, entirely inconsistent with the Court’s own free speech jurisprudence, and at odds with free speech in a liberal democracy.

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Filed under Contempt of Court, Free Speech

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