Freedom of Speech: A Round-Up of Recent Judicial Pronouncements

(Editor’s Note: Over the last few months, I have been unable to write here as frequently as I would have liked to. Over the course of this month, I will try to post a series of round-up pieces summarising some broad developments since January ’18. The first of these posts is about the freedom of speech.)

The Supreme Court’s right to privacy judgment was meant to be about expanding the individual rights against State (and private) power. However, as the last few years have shown, our Courts are experts at turning shields that are meant to guard rights into swords to cut them down. An excellent example of this is the Madras High Court’s judgment in Thiru P. Varadarajan v Kanimozhi, which imposed a gag order upon a Tamil magazine with respect to articles about the “private life” of Kanimozhi. The High Court was hearing an application to vacate an injunction against a magazine that had been granted four years ago. In refusing to vacate the injunction, the Court relied upon the right to privacy judgment – citing copiously from it; the core of its reasoning was this:

“The concluding remarks of Hon’ble Mr. Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul [in the privacy judgment] are as follows:

‘Let the right of privacy, an inherent right, be unequivocally a fundamental right embedded in part-III of the Constitution of India, but subject to the restrictions specified, relatable to that part. This is the call of today. The old order changeth yielding place to new.’

Therefore, the Hon’ble Supreme Court had while recognising the right of privacy is a fundamental right, in fact called for a new order, which would offer a preeminent position to the right to privacy.”

This is a standard of legal “reasoning” that would get you a failing grade in Legal Methods 101. The High Court cites the closing line of the concurring opinion of one judge out of nine – a line that is self-evidently pure rhetoric, and uses that to invent a mythical “new order” in which privacy has been given “pre-eminence” (over the freedom of speech). The High Court seems to be unaware of the operative part of the privacy judgment, which affirms all the cases that have elaborated upon the scope of the right to privacy after Gobind, including cases where the balance between privacy and free speech was discussed (such as R. R. Rajagopal). The question of whether the balance is to be struck by granting (everlasting) injunctions has been a fraught one, and there is at least one detailed and well-reasoned High Court judgment (Khushwant Singh) that holds that the correct remedy is not to gag speech, but to provide for damages in case privacy is breached.

There is, therefore, no warrant for the High Court’s free-floating conclusion that “the theory that there cannot be a prior restraint or a gag order upon the press or Media stands diluted… after Puttaswamy’s Case.” Puttaswamy has absolutely nothing to say about prior restraint or gag orders. Puttaswamy was never dealing with the issue of balancing competing rights (in this case privacy and the freedom of speech), and did not change the law in this regard in any manner. Mercifully, the High Court does not, in the end, grant a blanket injunction, but a qualified one (albeit with entirely vague contours, banning any articles about the “private life” of Kanimozhi), along with a blanket right of reply.

Unfortunately, the Madras High Court’s order is not even the worst of the gag orders in recent times. That prize is jointly shared by two Delhi High Court orders: the incoherent, four-page stream-of-consciousness order gagging Cobrapost from reporting its sting on Dainik Bhaskar, and the order restoring the gag upon the publication and sale of Ramdev’s biography; as well as the Gujarat High Court order gagging The Wire from publishing about Jay Shah. Notably, the latter two examples are of High Courts stepping in to restore gag orders after trial courts hearing the cases have vacated them.

These “interim” orders, which have the luxury of being virtually unreasoned because they are granted before any kind of substantive hearing, effectively kill the speech in question, given how long legal proceedings take in India. They are effectively decisions on the merits without any kind of examination of merits, and they choke off the marketplace of ideas at the very source. In developing a philosophy of “gag first, ask questions later“, the High Courts seem to be blissfully oblivious of the fact that what is at stake is a foundational fundamental right (Article 19(1)(a)); this is not some civil suit where you direct “status quo” pending final resolution. The more that “gag first, ask questions later” becomes standard judicial practice, the more Article 19(1)(a) will be reduced to a dead letter – and the doing of the deed will not be by the executive, but by the judiciary.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has tended to be as careless with words as the gagging High Courts. A recent example of this is Bimal Gurung v Union of IndiaThe case was about transferring FIRs to an independent investigation agency. While the FIRs were, in part, based on violent demonstrations, there was no need for the Court to go into the constitutional status of demonstrations in the first place. However, it chose to do so, and then came up with this:

“Demonstrations are also a mode of expression of the rights guaranteed underArticle 19(1)(a). Demonstrations whether political, religious or social or other demonstrations which create public disturbances or operate as nuisances, or create or manifestly threaten some tangible public or private mischief, are not covered by protection under Article 19(1).”

The Constitution is a carefully-drafted document. The framers agonised over the fundamental rights chapter, and in particular, there were long and stormy debates about the restrictions that were being placed upon fundamental rights. Every word that finally made it into the Constitution was debated extensively, and there were many words that were proposed and dropped. This is why Article 19(2) has eight very specific sub-clauses that list out the restrictions on speech. They include “public order”, “the sovereignty and integrity of India”, and “incitement to an offence” (among others). They do not include “nuisance”, “disturbance”, or “private mischief.” Apart from the fact that these are very vague terms that a judge can apply in a boundlessly manipulable fashion to shut down speech that he doesn’t like (recall that similarly vague provisions were struck down as unconstitutional in Shreya Singhal), there is an excellent constitutional reason why “nuisance” and “disturbance” are not part of 19(2). That is because if only acceptable speech was legally permitted, you would never need to have a fundamental right guaranteeing it. It’s only speech that is, in some ways, a nuisance or a disturbance, which a government (or powerful private parties) would like to curtail. This is especially true for demonstrations: the whole point of a demonstration is to put your point across by causing a degree of nuisance and disturbance (short of violence or incitement to offences). What that degree is, is a matter of judicial determination, by applying a reasonable time-place-manner test.

It may be argued that we should not make much of these stray observations, made in a case that was about an entirely different issue (a transfer of FIRs). However, that misses the point: words matter, and they matter especially when the Supreme Court is the author. The normalisation of “disturbance” and “nuisance” as invented restrictions on free speech can have a creeping effect on the scope of 19(2), especially given how stray Supreme Court paragraphs are regularly cited before lower Courts, and regularly applied by judges. In that context, there is an even greater obligation upon the Supreme Court to be careful with words.

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Filed under Chilling effect, Free Speech, prior restraint, Privacy, Public Order

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