Category Archives: Free Speech

Judicial Censorship, Prior Restraint, and the Karnan Gag Order

When the only weapon you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In recent times, the judiciary’s approach to the freedom of speech and expression seems to be proving this adage true. In response to people saying things that may not be to a judge’s liking, the response has invariably been to reach for the hammer, to ban, prohibit, or compel. Jolly LLB has a few scenes mocking lawyers? Make a committee and order cuts. Fundamental duties don’t have enough of an impact among people? Force them to stand up for the national anthem in cinemas. Condom packets have racy pictures? Direct the Additional Solicitor-General to come up with a way of “regulating” them. People are losing touch with cultural values? Force all schools in Tamil Nadu to teach the ThirukkuralThere are bandhs in Meghalaya? Ban the press from carrying statements about them. And so on.

The judicial hammer was in exhibition again today, in the seven-judge bench order convicting Justice C.S. Karnan of contempt, and sentencing him to six months in prison. The broader contempt case is not something I want to spend time discussing here, apart from noting, as an aside, that a Supreme Court that has no time to hear crucial constitutional cases for years on end on the ground that its judges are overworked and dealing with a backlog, nonetheless found the time to have multiple seven-judge sittings between February and May. Be that as it may, it is the last line of today’s order that I want to focus on. After convicting Justice Karnan to six months imprisonment, the Court states:

“Since the incident of contempt includes public statements and publication of orders made by the contemnor, which were highlighted by the electronic and print media, we are of the view, that no further statements made by him should be published hereafter. Ordered accordingly.”

The scope of this order is breathtaking. The Court takes one individual – Justice Karnan – and gags the media from carrying any statement made by him. In my view, apart from overreaching and violating Article 19(1)(a), the Court has passed an order that it had no power to pass.

Prior Restraint

The order imposes what, in free speech law, is called “prior restraint”: “… [State] action that prohibits speech or other expression before it can take place.” It has long been a position in common law that prior restraints upon speech are impermissible unless exceptional circumstances exist. As early as 1765 in England (a time not exactly known for liberties of speech and of the press), Blackstone famously wrote that “the liberty of the press… consists in laying no previous restraints upon publication.” The American Supreme Court has held repeatedly that “any prior restraint on expression comes to this Court with a `heavy presumption’ against its constitutional validity.” In Brij Bhushan vs State of Delhi, the Indian Supreme Court held, as well, that prior restraint upon speech is presumptively unconstitutional. Prior restraint is considered specially damaging to free speech because it chokes off the “marketplace of ideas” at its very source, and prevents certain individuals, or ideas, from entering the public sphere. In other words, it gives the State exclusive control over “exclusive control over what material can or cannot be allowed to enter the marketplace of ideas.”

The Media Guidelines Case

In Sahara vs SEBI, popularly known as the “Media Guidelines Case”, the Supreme Court carved out a specific exception to the rule against prior restraint. In SEBI, the Court was concerned about the issue of media trials causing prejudice in sub judice matters. In that context, the Court held that it had inherent powers under the Constitution to “prohibit temporarily, statements being made in the media which would prejudice or obstruct or interfere with the administration of justice in a given case pending in the Supreme Court or the High Court or even in the subordinate courts.” Drawing this power under Article 129 of the Constitution, which authorised the Supreme Court to punish for contempt of itself, the Court held that the power to punish included the power to prevent as well. On this basis, the Court held that it could pass “postponement orders” (i.e., temporary injuncting the media from reporting on a particular event) in order to ensure the proper administration of justice, a fair trial, and the protection of the rights of the accused under Article 21. The Court warned that:

“Given that the postponement orders curtail the freedom of expression of third parties, such orders have to be passed only in cases in which there is real and substantial risk of prejudice to fairness of the trial or to the proper administration of justice which in the words of Justice Cardozo is “the end and purpose of all laws”. However, such orders of postponement should be ordered for a limited duration and without disturbing the content of the publication. They should be passed only when necessary to prevent real and substantial risk to the fairness of the trial (court proceedings), if reasonable alternative methods or measures such as change of venue or postponement of trial will not prevent the said risk and when the salutary effects of such orders outweigh the deleterious effects to the free expression of those affected by the prior restraint. The order of postponement will only be appropriate in cases where the balancing test otherwise favours non-publication for a limited period.”

Consequently, in SEBI, the Supreme Court authorised prior restraint only in the narrow context of an ongoing trial, where media reporting presented a “real and substantial risk of prejudice to the fairness of the trial.” The Court stressed that the postponement order must be narrow and limited, both in its scope and its duration.

The Karnan Gag Order

The SEBI case has come under serious criticism, but for the purposes of this post, let us take it as binding law, and test the Karnan order against it. It is quite obvious that none of SEBI’s pre-conditions for imposing prior restraint are not even remotely satisfied. There is no ongoing trial – by the same order in which it imposed the media gag, the Court convicted him of contempt. Consequently, the prospect of prejudicing an ongoing trial and thereby interfering with the administration of justice – the basis of the judgment in SEBI – does not exist. The order is neither narrow in scope, nor in its duration: it is, in the true sense of the word, a blanket gag order. Consequently, the Karnan gag order does not fall within the scope of the SEBI judgment.

What, then, is the justification for this sweeping exercise of judicial power to silence speech? The answer is clear: Justice Karnan has, over the course of the last few months, made a number of statements, which formed the basis of his conviction for contempt by the Supreme Court. The Court presumes that he will make more such statements, and many of them will amount to contempt of court. To prevent these statements from being given the oxygen of publicity, the Court decides to gag the media from reporting on them, in advance.

This is the case for the Court, taken at its highest. And at its highest, it is no case at all. There is something particularly disturbing about punishing a man not for what he has said, but for what he might say (we are dangerously close to the realm of thought-crimes here). There is something particularly disturbing about taking the choice and judgment away from the media about what to report and what not to report, to decide for themselves what statements might be legal and what illegal, and imposing a blanket ban on reporting anything one individual might say, in advance. There is no counter-veiling interest: no ongoing trial, no sexual harassment claim where reputations may be destroyed, no grave imperilment of national security. There is absolutely nothing here apart from a man who has made some statements that the Court has found to be contemptuous, and on that basis the Court has decided to gag the media from publishing anything he says. Even if it could possibly be argued that the Court had the power to do this under Article 129 (since, as has been held, the power to punish for contempt includes the power to prevent it), the Karnan order clearly violates Article 19(1)(a), and fails all the proximity and reasonableness tests laid down under Article 19(2).

Needless to say, I don’t believe that the Court does have the power to pass an order under Article 129. SEBI – which held that the power to “punish” contempt includes the power to “prevent” contempt – was already stretching language to its limits. But even if there is some way to justify SEBI on the grounds of its narrowly focused nature, to say that the Karnan gag order falls within the Supreme Court’s power to “prevent contempt” is to act like Humpty Dumpty, and make words mean what you want them to mean, because you are the master.

Now, if the gag order cannot be traced back to Article 129, then – in my view – there is no constitutional source for it at all. As I have argued before in my analysis of the national anthem order, under Article 19(2), speech can be restricted only by the “State”, acting through “law”. It is, by now, well-settled, that under Article 19(2), the judiciary is not “State”, and judicial orders are not “law”. The judiciary’s task is to protect citizens’ right to free speech from executive and legislative tyranny, not to get into the business of censoring speech itself! In my view, therefore, the gag order is entirely illegal and unconstitutional.

Judicial Censorship

I have written before that over the last few years, we have been witnessing a disturbing trend where, in place of the legislature and the executive, it is the judiciary that has been taking upon itself the task of regulating, restricting, and censoring speech. The Karnan gag order is the latest trend in what fast seems to be becoming an established jurisprudence of (what I have called) “judicial censorship”.

The Karnan gag order was written by the Chief Justice, but co-signed by the next six senior-most judges of the Supreme Court. Three of those six judges will serve as Chief Justice in the coming years. What this suggests is that the problem is not with individual judges, but with the fact that, as an institution, the Supreme Court simply doesn’t view the freedom of speech and expression to be of much importance.

That is, in equal parts, alarming and tragic.

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Filed under Contempt of Court, Free Speech, judicial censorship

The Constitutional Challenge to S. 139AA of the IT Act (Aadhaar/PAN) – II: The Union’s Arguments

In the previous post, I detailed the petitioners’ arguments in the constitutional challenge to S. 139AA of the Income Tax Act, which effectively makes enrolling for an Aadhaar number compulsory for taxpayers. After Petitioners completed their arguments, the Union of India – through the Attorney-General, Mr Arghya Sengupta, and Mr Zoheb Hossain – responded in defence of S. 139AA. Mr Shyam Divan and Mr Arvind Datar then replied for the Petitioners. In this post, I shall provide a brief account of the arguments, isolate the issues that the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court must address, and outline the possible outcomes.

The Attorney-General’s Arguments: A Limited Right to Bodily Integrity

The Attorney-General argued that the Petitioners’ Article 21 challenge to S. 139AA – focusing on bodily integrity – was nothing but a camouflaged privacy challenge, which the Court could not examine at this stage (see previous post on the dropping of privacy arguments from the present proceedings). However, assuming that there was an independent right to bodily integrity under Article 21, the thrust of the Attorney-General’s argument was that this right could be limited by the State – and in fact, was limited by the State in a number of other domains, in ways equally, or more, intrusive than Aadhaar. For instance, Section 32 of the Registration Act, 1908, required all ten fingerprints as a pre-requisite for registering property. People routinely subjected themselves to biometric collection while traveling abroad. More broadly, the Attorney-General argued that Aadhaar only did something that was already normalised and routinised in society: in an era of ubiquitous photography, what was so unacceptably intrusive about an iris scan? Given the ubiquity of online transactions through smartphones, what was so intrusive about having to part with one’s data for the purpose paying taxes? To accede to the Petitioners’ arguments would be to set a legal standard that could only be fulfilled by hermits living alone in the mountains, and not citizens part of the modern, digital economy.

Although the Attorney-General did not specifically use the term, what he appeared to be doing was borrowing the American doctrine of “reasonable expectation of privacy“: that is, the scope of one’s right to privacy – or, in the language in which this case was argued – “bodily integrity” – is determined by what is socially sanctioned and understood as reasonable at any given time. Briefly put, the Attorney-General’s case was that Aadhaar calls upon citizens to give up only that which they voluntarily and regularly give up as part of their daily lives; consequently, there was no constitutional violation to start with.

The Attorney-General then argued that in any event, citizens had no absolute rights over their bodies. In this case, there was a larger public interest that justified the level of infringement. For instance, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act regulated the conditions under which a woman could abort her foetus. Random breath checks for drunken driving were required in the interests of road safety. At this point, Justice Sikri interjected, and wondered whether those examples were analogous, because in those cases, the restrictions were clearly reasonable. To this, the Attorney-General replied that in the present case as well, there was a larger public interest: the effective and efficient collection of taxes, which was an integral part of life in an ordered society.

To substantiate this argument, the Attorney-General took the Court through the history of PAN Cards, and the perceived need to replace them with Aadhaar. He argued that on a random verification of 0.2% of all PAN Cards, a number of duplicate PANs were thrown up. Besides, over the previous twenty years, the existence of shell companies, the presence of directors in multiple companies, and multiple PAN holders, had all come to light. India was a highly tax non-compliant society. Furthermore, in addition to tax dodging, there were also problems of black money, which was used to finance terrorism. For all these reasons, it was important to develop a system in which identification could not be faked. The Attorney-General submitted that the only way to accomplish this was to digitise fingerprints and iris scans, and keep them for posterity. At present, fingerprints and iris scans could not be duplicated, and consequently, the shift to Aadhaar was necessary. Furthermore, this data would be encrypted and stored in a centralised server, and shared only with the police in case it was needed for resolving a crime.

Aadhaar itself, the Attorney-General submitted, was originally conceputalised to prevent leakages in the public distribution system, in payment of wages under the NREGA, in the payment of pensions, and so on. He argued that with Aadhaar, more than Rs 50 crores had been saved by plugging leakages. Consequently, even if there was some infringement of individual rights, it was balanced by the larger public goal, as mandated – according to the Attorney-General – by Rousseau’s conceptualisation of the social contract. Individuals were in a contractual relationship with the State from their birth, reliant upon it for a host of benefits; how then could they refuse to pay their taxes in the manner mandated by the State?

Indeed – according to the Attorney-General – the Supreme Court had itself sanctioned the use of Aadhaar in PDS schemes in 2011, and in SIM card verification just a couple of months before. Furthermore, an accurate identification system such as Aadhaar was needed to ensure that India was in compliance with its obligations under international agreements such as the FATCA. For all these reasons, the Attorney-General submitted that Aadhaar was entirely within the parametres of Article 21 of the Constitution.

He concluded his arguments by submitting that within the contours of the social contract, nobody had a right to make themselves invisible: “you may want to be forgotten. But the State does not want to forget you.

Returning to this argument at a later point in his submissions, the Attorney-General also argued that a number of Supreme Court cases – such as Kathi Kalu Oghad – had held that compelling persons accused of a crime to provide their fingerprints had been held not to violate the constitutional right against self-incrimination. So why couldn’t the State put in preventive measures to check tax dodging in advance? Justice Sikri interjected to say that the Kathi Kalu line of cases might not be apposite, because they involved accused in criminal cases; surely it was not right to treat the entire country as presumptively accused of tax dodging. The Attorney-General replied that he was only arguing that the right to bodily integrity was not absolute – it could be taken away in certain cases. “Which cases, is the question“, Justice Sikri responded. “Even your life can be taken away under Article 21“, the Attorney-General continued. “But only with due process,” Justice Sikri replied. “We must balance individual dignity with State interests.” The Attorney-General responded: “at the end of the day, if you can give your fingerprints for registering property, why can’t you give your fingerprints for this?

Still later in his submissions, the Attorney-General cited precedents from the American Supreme Court about urine testing for school athletes, DNA testing of a rape accused, and – perhaps paradoxically – Roe vs Wade – to reiterate that the right to bodily integrity was not absolute.

Article 19(1)(g)

The Attorney-General’s rebuttal to Mr Datar’s argument on Article 19(1)(g) was brief. He stated that there was no violation of Article 19(1)(g), and expressed surprise that in this day and age, someone was making a constitutional argument based on Article 19(1)(g).

S. 139AA and the Aadhaar Act

The Attorney-General submitted that there was no conflict between Section 139AA and the Aadhaar Act. Responding to Mr Shyam Divan’s submission that the coercive character of 139AA could not stand alongside the voluntary nature of Aadhaar, the Attorney-General argued that Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act was at least partially mandatory: the State could tell citizens “either you should have an Aadhaar Act, or you jolly well apply for it.” Furthermore, under S. 57 of the Aadhaar Act, Aadhaar could be used for purposes other than those stipulated in the Act itself. And in any event, he argued, Parliament’s power to prescribe uses for Aadhaar was plenary, and subject only to the Constitution. The Attorney-General added that the Aadhaar Act came built in with safeguards: Section 29, for instance, prohibited the sharing of information. True, there had been some leaks of late; but those leaks, he argued, had not come from the UIDAI, or the central government, but the Jharkhand state government; and in any event, biometric details had not been compromised – only bank account information had.

Parliamentary Legislation and Court Orders

The Attorney-General’s final argument was that whatever the status of the pre-2016 Supreme Court orders stipulating that Aadhaar could only remain voluntary, all these were overridden by subsequent legislation. There was no such thing as “legislative estoppel“. No Court could injunct Parliament from passing laws as it deemed fit. By passing the Aadhaar Act – and then s. 139AA – the Parliament had simply exercised its plenary powers, and passed validating legislation taking away the basis of the prior court orders.

The Attorney-General concluded his arguments by citing a World Bank Report praising the Aadhaar system. Everyone needed an identity, he argued. Many people in India had no identity. Aadhaar was a method to bring them into the mainstream, prevent exclusion, and guarantee them their dignity.

The Arguments of Mr. Arghya Sengupta: Article 14 and Proportionality

Continuing the case for the Union, Mr Arghya Sengupta argued that Mr Datar’s claim that 139AA violated Article 14 of the Constitution was incorrect, because Article 14 did not require the Court to undertake a proportionality analysis. He cited K.T. Plantations for the proposition that a proportionality test effectively amounted to judges substituting their wisdom for that of Parliament. Taking the Court through comparative law, Mr Sengupta submitted that traditional judicial review claims in the United Kingdom had never included a proportionality test. While the European Court of Human Rights did incorporate a proportionality analysis into its rights-analysis, this only caused greater confusion than resolution. Relying upon Lord Pannick and Lord Hoffman, Mr Sengupta submitted that “the reasons for not treating people equally often involve considerations of social policy.” Justice Sikri interjected to observe that equality claims in the United Kingdom – which didn’t have a Constitution – might be treated differently from how they were in India. Mr Sengupta responded that the broader point was that proportionality only entered the picture when some balancing of rights was involved. Article 14 only required the Courts to ask whether there existed a valid reason for treating people differently from one another. There was no question of balancing. In fact, Article 14 was not about “rights” at all; fundamentally, it was about “wrongs”. Mr Sengupta concluded this argument by citing Professor Rebecca Dixon for the proposition that even the proportionality test had begun to collapse into the traditional test, and argued for the retention of the traditional Indian test of intelligible differentia and rational nexus.

On the merits of Article 14 itself, Mr Sengupta argued that Mr Datar was incorrect in arguing that the disproportionate penalty for not complying with Article 139AA rendered it violative of Article 14. Relying upon the McDowell Casehe repeated his submission that proportionality could not be invoked to strike down a statute under Article 14. Nor could a statute be struck down on grounds of arbitrariness. Justice Sikri interjected that, by virtue of Mardia Chemicals, it might be possible to invalidate a statute on grounds of arbitrariness. In response, Mr Sengupta cited Rajbala vs State of Haryana, which had rejected the arbitrariness doctrine (for a previous discussion of this debate on this blog, see here; for an analysis of Rajbala, see here).

Coming to the traditional classification test under Article 14, Mr Sengupta opposed Mr Datar’s argument that by making Aadhaar compulsory only for individual assessees, S. 139AA violated the rational nexus test. He argued that, by definition, only individuals could have Aadhaar numbers (as opposed to companies, or HUFs). Consequently, Parliament had chosen to first focus on the problem of black money and tax evasion committed by individuals, and had brought in Aadhaar to check that. No enactment, Mr Sengupta argued, could completely solve a social problem. Parliament had decided to make a start with individuals, and at a future date, would devise ways for dealing with the other categories of assessees as well.

Justice Sikri said that he understood that there was no discrimination if companies were incapable of even having Aadhaar numbers. However, the question was why discriminate between two people, both of whom were willing to pay tax, if one of them was willing to enrol for an Aadhaar number, and the other was not. Mr Sengupta replied that the purpose of 139AA was not to discriminate, but to prevent duplication of PAN cards. So the discriminatory object test under Article 14 – as Mr Shyam Divan had argued – was inapplicable. In fact, much like in the US, when TIN was replaced by SSN, in future, the State might choose to replace PAN with Aadhaar entirely.

Conscientious Objection

Mr Sengupta submitted that Mr Divan calling his clients “conscientious objectors” who were being discriminated against was entirely misplaced. Citing texts on civil disobedience and conscientious objection, he argued that what Mr Divan was essentially arguing for was a license to break the law. You may not want to stand up for the national anthem, he pointed out, but that did not mean you could sit down. Justice Sikri observed that that might not be an entirely accurate framing; the petitioners had, after all, approached the Court to have the law struck down. Mr Sengupta replied that there could be conscientious objection to all kinds of laws, but that in itself did not make them discriminatory.

Informational Self-Determination

Mr Sengupta’s final argument was on informational self-determination. He submitted that there was no absolute right to informational self-determination. The State could – and did – collect a wide range of information from individuals: births, deaths, marriages. The information that the State required from its citizens was extensive, and nobody challenged it. In any event, Mr Sengupta argued, whatever right to informational self-determination – in the apparent guise of privacy – did exist, it would have to be conditioned and defined by cultural factors. India was very different from Germany, from where Mr Divan had drawn his doctrine. There would have to be devised an Indian doctrine of informational self-determination, drawn from Indian conditions. Citing Mark Tushnet on the dangers of comparative law, Mr Sengupta argued against “importing” the conception of privacy into India.

At this point, Mr Divan interjected and said that his argument was not a privacy argument, but an argument about his right to his body. Justice Sikri observed that there might be overlaps between the two concepts. Mr Divan responded that there might indeed be overlaps, but that his right to bodily integrity was not subsumed within his right to privacy. Mr Sengupta argued that it was not open to this Court to draw a distinction between privacy and informational self-determination; given that the very question of privacy was pending before the Constitution Bench, it was for the Constitution Bench to decide what the scope of privacy was, and whether or not it included informational self-determination. Returning to his argument about importing foreign law into India, Mr Sengupta cited Justice Antonin Scalia of the American Supreme Court who, in a death penalty case, had resisted the use of comparative precedent, arguing that in judging whether the death penalty in a particular case was “cruel and unusual punishment”, only “American standards of decency” ought to be looked at.

In any event, Mr Sengupta continued, even the German Constitutional Court required a balancing between individual and community interests. He repeated his submission that the right to informational self-determination was fundamentally about privacy, since the right to control information about oneself was a facet of privacy. If the Court was going to go into that, then there was a compelling State interest in the present case: that of preventing duplicate PANs, and ensuring efficient collection of taxes. Justice Sikri stated that the Petitioners would have to show why they had a right to pay taxes in the manner that they desired. Mr Sengupta continued by saying that biometric collection was the most sophisticated system presently known. PAN was the technology of 1975, he concluded; but Aadhaar was the technology of 2016.

The Arguments of Mr Zoheb Hossain

Mr Zoheb Hossain observed that India is a progressive tax regime. Progressive taxation was itself a facet of Article 14 of the Constitution. 139AA served this progressive goal by eliminating the inequality between taxpayers and tax evaders, by making duplication of PANs impossible. There was no discrimination against individuals; in fact, there were other provisions of the Income Tax Act – such as dividend distribution tax – applicable only to companies.

Mr Hossain then argued that Mr Divan was incorrect to argue that compelled taking of biometric details and iris scans amounted to compelled speech. Citing United States vs O’Brien, he argued that not every act or conduct amounted to “speech”.

Mr Hossain concluded by arguing that the standard for injuncting a parliamentary legislation was extremely high. There could be no injunction unless the statute was manifestly unconstitutional. Consequently, if the Court was inclined to refer the case to the larger bench, it ought not to grant a stay on the operation of S. 139AA.

(Disclaimer: The writer assisted the Petitioners in the constitutional challenge before the Court.)

 

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Filed under aadhaar, arbitrariness, Article 14, Article 21 and the Right to Life, Bodily Integrity, Bodily Privacy/Integrity, Equality, Free Speech, Privacy

The (Hoary) Roots of Vagueness

When, in 2015, the Supreme Court handed down its judgment in Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, it was celebrated for many reasons. One of them was that the Court’s invocation of vagueness – along with the chilling effect – as a ground for striking down Section 66A of the IT Act represented an important conceptual breakthrough. While in Baldeo Prasad (1960) the Supreme Court had struck down a law criminalising “goondas” on the basis that it did not define who a “goonda” was, in K.A. Abbas (1970) the Court had admitted that in certain circumstances vagueness might make a statute void, and in Kartar Singh (1994) the Court had more or less imported the concept of void-for-vagueness from American jurisprudence, Shreya Singhal was believed to be the first time that the Court actually struck down a speech-restricting statute for being unconstitutionally vague.

Apparently not. It turns out that the origin of the vagueness doctrine in the context of speech-restricting statutes is far older than 2015; in fact, it goes back to 1951, to the beginnings of our constitutional jurisprudence, and a good two decades before the classic American judgment on the point, Grayned vs Rockford.

The case is State of Bombay vs F.N. Balsara, which is part of the constitutional canon, although for very different reasons. We know of Balsara because of its upholding of prohibition, its exposition of the doctrine of pith and substance in determining legislative competence, and its restatement of the classification test under Article 14. However, there was also an Article 19(1)(a) issue in Balsara, which the Court dealt with in a terse paragraph towards the end of its judgment. Not only did the Bombay prohibition law ban liquor, it also penalised people – and advertisements – which would “commend, solicit the use of, or offer any intoxicant or hemp” or “incite or encourage any member of the public or any class of individuals or the public generally to commit any act which frustrates or defeats the provisions of this Act, or any rule, regulation or order made thereunder,” [Sections 23 and 24 of the Act]

With respect to these provisions, the Court had this to say:

“Sections 23(a) and 24(1)(a) in so far as they refer to “commending” any intoxicant are said to conflict with the fundamental right guaranteed by article 19 (1) (a) namely, the right to freedom of speech and expression and there can be no doubt that the prohibition against “commending” any intoxicant is a curtailment of the right guaranteed. and it can be supported only if it is saved by clause (2) of article 19 which, as it stands at present, provides that “nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law in so far as it relates to, or prevent the State from making any law relating to, libel, slander, defamation, contempt of court or any matter which offends against decency or morality or which undermines the security of, or tends to overthrow, the State.” It seems to me that none of the conditions mentioned in clause applies to the present case, and therefore the provisions in question must be held to be void. Section 23 (b) must also be held to be void. because the words “incite” and “encourage” are wide enough to include incitement or encouragement by words and speeches and also by acts. The words “which frustrates or defeats the provisions of the Act or any rule, regulation or order made thereunder” are so wide and vague that it is difficult to define or limit their scope. I am therefore in agreement with the view of the High Court that this provision is invalid in its entirety. So far as article 24(1)(b) is concerned the judgment of the High Court in regard to it cannot be upheld. The learned counsel for the petitioner also conceded before us that he was not going to assail this provision.”*

While the major premise of the Court’s argument was that there was no sub-clause under Article 19(2) that could be used to justify prohibiting the “commending” or “encouraging” or “inciting” the sale and consumption of alcohol, it also made it clear that in any event, the gravamen of the offence – “frustrating or defeating the provisions of the act” – consisted of such vague terms, that the provision could not be sustained under Article 19(2). Interestingly, the Court also gave a nod to a concept often associated with vagueness in free speech jurisprudence – that of overbreadth – when it noted that the impugned words “are so wide and vague that it is difficult to define or limit their scope.” The issue of definition speaks to vagueness, while the issue of limit speaks to over-breadth (i.e., when a statute is worded so broadly that it ends up prohibiting speech that may constitutionally be restricted, as well as speech that may not).

Consequently, six decades before Shreya Singhal, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court had already struck down a speech-restricting statutory provision on grounds of over-breadth and vagueness. This conceptual advance, however, was largely forgotten in the intervening years (Abbas makes no reference to Balsara), and Balsara is never taught as a free speech case.

It does make you wonder, though, about how many hidden gems are lying scattered about in the Constitution Bench decisions from the 1950s. Chintaman Rao’s exposition of over-breadth was forgotten until Shreya Singhal resurrected it in 2015; In Re Kerala Education Bill’s doctrine of unconstitutional conditions was cited once in a concurring opinion in Ahmedabad St Xavier’s Education Society, but has been submerged ever since; Basheshar Nath’s invitation to develop a theory of fundamental rights as constituting an objective order of values, following German jurisprudence (via the doctrine of waiver), has never been seriously taken up; and of course, Balsara’s account of vagueness has been lost to the canon. All these judgments were delivered by benches of five judges or more, and consequently, remain good law.

How might the jurisprudence of 2017 be affected if the jurisprudence of the 1950s was to be taken seriously once more?

*Notice also that for the Court, the question of finding limitations upon free speech imported from outside 19(2) don’t even arise (much as they didn’t arise in its 1960 judgment in Sakal Papers). This is a good indication of why a two-judge bench’s recent framing of issues pertaining to whether Article 21 can “limit” 19(1)(a) is entirely misguided; the two-judge bench is bound by the Constitution Benches in Balsara as well as in Sakal: restrictions upon free speech are not to be imported form beyond Article 19(1)).

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Filed under Chilling effect, Free Speech

Notes from a Foreign Field: The High Court of Kenya Strikes Down Criminal Defamation

In an interesting judgment handed down yesterday, the High Court of Kenya held that criminal defamation unjustifiably restricted the right to freedom of speech and expression, and consequently, was unconstitutional and void. The judgment is part of a growing worldwide trend (with a few noticeable exceptions) to decriminalise defamation, whether judicially or legislatively.

The Constitutional Provisions

Article 33(1) of the Kenyan Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression. Article 33(2) provides that this right shall not extend to propaganda for war, incitement to violence, hate speech, or advocacy of hatred. Article 33(3) provides that every person must “respect the rights and reputation of others.”

In addition, Article 24 of the Constitution contains a general limitation clause that states:

“A right or fundamental freedom in the Bill of Rights shall not be limited except by law, and then only to the extent that the limitation is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom, taking into account all relevant factors, including— (a) the nature of the right or fundamental freedom; (b) the importance of the purpose of the limitation; (c) the nature and extent of the limitation; (d) the need to ensure that the enjoyment of rights and fundamental freedoms by any individual does not prejudice the rights and fundamental freedoms of others; (e) and the relation between the limitation and its purpose and whether there are less restrictive means to achieve the purpose.” 

It is important to note that Article 24 lays down a test of proportionality, which is broadly similar to the test laid down by the Indian Supreme Court in State of Madras vs V.G. Row, where the Supreme Court had held that under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, the relevant test required consideration of:

“The nature of the right alleged to have been infringed, the underlying purpose of the restrictions imposed, the extent and urgency of the evil sought to be remedied thereby, the disproportion of the imposition, the prevailing conditions at the time, should all enter into the judicial verdict.”

As we can see, there is an overlap between four of the five prongs of the two tests.

The Court’s Analysis

The Petitioners argued that “criminal libel is not a reasonable or justifiable restriction on freedom of expression and added that it is a “disproportionate instrument for protecting the reputations, rights and freedoms of others” and that the remedy in tort is sufficient and less restrictive means of achieving the purpose.” (pg. 3) To buttress this submission, they cited comparative law, including the judgment of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the judgment of the High Court of Zimbabwe, and the 2008 Report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion.

The Court agreed. First, it held that criminal defamation was not saved by Article 24, because the general limitations clause was clearly intended to protect social interests, while criminal defamation was intended to protect an individual interest (the interest of the person defamed). To substantiate this argument, the Court applied the doctrine of noscitur a sociis (a word is known by the company it keeps), on the authority – interestingly – of the Indian Supreme Court. Consequently:

“It is to be borne in mind that defamation of an individual by another individual is a civil wrong or tort, pure and simple for which the common law remedy is an action for damages. It has to be kept in mind that fundamental rights are conferred in the public interest and defamation of any person by another person is unconnected with the fundamental right conferred in the public interest and, therefore, Section 194 out to be construed outside the scope of Article 24 of the Constitution which in my view aims at largely protecting public interest.”

And, with respect to Section 33:

“Section 194, which stipulates defamation of a private person by another individual, has no nexus with the fundamental rights conferred under article 33 of the Constitution, for Article 33 is meant to include the public interest and not that of an individual and, therefore, the said constitutional provision cannot be the source of criminal defamation. I base this argument on two grounds:- (i) the common thread that runs through the various grounds engrafted under Article 33 (2) (a)-(d) are relatable to the protection of the interest of the State and the public in general and the word “defamation” has to be understood in the said context, and (ii) the principle of noscitur a sociis, when applied, “defamation” remotely cannot assume the character of public interest or interest of the crime inasmuch a crime remotely has nothing to do with the same.”

(There is a parallel worth thinking about here, because the Indian Supreme Court has often held that the purpose of Article 19(2) is to protect “social interests“.)

However, given that Section 24 spoke about the “rights of others“, and Section 33 spoke about “reputation”, was that not a basis for the constitutionality of criminal defamation?  The Court responded that the question was whether criminalising defamation was a proportionate method of protecting the rights of others. It held that it was not. To start with, the Court observed:

“Human rights enjoy a prima facie, presumptive inviolability, and will often ‘trump’ other public goods.” (p. 8)

Within this framework, the Court held that the question of proportionality would have to be answered in two phases: “firstly, what are the consequences of criminalizing defamation and, secondly, is there an appropriate and satisfactory alternative remedy to deal with the mischief of defamation.” (p. 11)

On the first issue, the Court focused on the specific aspects of the criminal process: “The practical consequences that would ordinarily flow from a complaint of criminal defamation are as follows; the accused person would be investigated and face the danger of arrest. This would arise even where the alleged defamation is not serious and where the accused has an available defence to the charge. Thereafter, if the charge is prosecuted, he will be subjected to the rigors and ordeal of a criminal trial. Even if the accused is eventually acquitted, he may well have undergone the traumatizing gamut of arrest, detention, remand and trial. Moreover, assuming that the accused has employed the services of a lawyer, he will also have incurred a sizeable bill of costs which will normally not be recoverable.” (p. 11)

While, admittedly, this problems would afflict any person accused of any criminal offence, the case of free speech was crucially different because of the chilling effect. According to the Court:

“The overhanging effect of the offence of criminal defamation is to stifle and silence the free flow of information in the public domain. This, in turn, may result in the citizenry remaining uninformed about matters of public significance and the unquestioned and unchecked continuation of unconscionable malpractices.” (p. 11)

Additionally:

“The chilling effect of criminalizing defamation is further exacerbated by the maximum punishment of two years imprisonment imposable for any contravention of section 194 of impugned section. This penalty, in my view, is clearly excessive and patently disproportionate for the purpose of suppressing objectionable or opprobrious statements.” (p. 11)

Furthermore, if proportionality was about ensuring that the least restrictive method was applied to serve a particular goal, then the very existence of an equivalent civil remedy made criminalising the offence disproportionate. The Court held:

“I am clear in my mind that there is an appropriate and satisfactory alternative civil remedy that is available to combat the mischief of defamation. Put differently, the offence of criminal defamation constitutes a disproportionate instrument for achieving the intended objective of protecting the reputations, rights and freedoms of other persons. Thus, it is absolutely unnecessary to criminalize defamatory statements. Consequently, I am satisfied that criminal defamation is not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society within the contemplation of article 24 of the Constitution. In my view, it is inconsistent with the freedom of expression guaranteed by 33 of that Constitution.” (p. 14)

Finding that this view was also in accord with international practice as well as the decisions of the African Court, the Kenyan High Court struck down criminal defamation.

Comparisons with India

It is interesting to note that all the arguments that proved decisive with the High Court of Kenya, were argued before the Supreme Court last year in Subramanian Swamy vs Union of India – and almost completely ignored. It was argued that defamation was primarily aimed at protecting individual reputation, and therefore inconsistent with the very purpose of criminal law (to provide public remedies). It was argued that criminalising defamation was a disproportionate response under Article 19(2), because of the nature of the criminal process. And it was also argued that the Court was required to be particularly solicitous to the question of balance as far as the freedom of speech was concerned, because of the reality of the chilling effect. However, instead of engaging with these issues, the Court decided to elevate reputation to the status of the right to life, invented a doctrine of “constitutional fraternity” out of thin air, and upheld criminal defamation in a rambling, 270-page long judgment, which was notable for its failure to address the precise arguments that – as pointed out above – the High Court of Kenya found convincing.

It is not only for its verdict, but also for its lack of reasoning, that Subramanian Swamy needs an urgent rethink. The Kenyan High Court’s terse and lucid 14-page judgment provides us with a good template of what such a rethinking might look like.

 

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Filed under Comparative Constitutional Law, Constitutional Scholarship, Defamation, Free Speech, freedom of speech, Kenya, Uncategorized

Judicial Censorship and Judicial Evasion: The Depressing Story of Jolly LLB 2

In 2013, Jolly LLB, a comedic satire about the Indian legal profession, ran into legal trouble. Two lawyers initiated “public interest litigation” in the Delhi High Court, asking the Court to direct the Film Certification Board to cancel the license that it had granted to the film under the Cinematograph Act. The Court dismissed the PIL, finding nothing of “public interest” in it, and also finding it to be premature, because it had been filed purely on the basis of trailers. An appeal to the Supreme Court was dismissed in limine, Justice Lodha memorably remarking, “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”

Four years later, the sequel, Jolly LLB 2, was not so lucky. This time, another petitioner tried his luck in the Bombay High Court, and after a series of proceedings that I shall proceed to describe, succeeded in having the Court direct “cuts” to the film. In between, the filmmakers went to the Supreme Court, which declined to interfere.

What has happened with Jolly LLB 2 over the last two weeks reveals a confluence between two alarming trends that I have highlighted before: judicial censorship (the Court censoring speech without the authority of any law) and judicial evasion (the Court effectively deciding cases without adjudicating them – i.e., without passing reasoned judgments – simply by keeping them hanging).

The Events

On January 20, it was reported that a lawyer had filed a petition before the Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court, arguing that the trailers of the film revealed an “attempt to project the Indian Judiciary and the Indian legal system in a derogatory manner.” The petitioner had a problem with the fact that scenes in the film showed lawyers dancing in the court, and people playing cards, and asked that the word “LLB” be dropped from the the title of the film.

Instead of dismissing this petition at the threshold, the Bombay High Court issued notice on January 27 and asked the filmmakers to reply. On January 30, the Court found that there was a “prima facie” case of contempt of court. It ordered that the petition be converted into a PIL, and constituted a three-member committee (out of which two members were lawyers) to watch the film, and submit their report on Monday (February 6).

Since the film was scheduled to be released on Friday, February 10, the producers moved the Supreme Court on February 3. Before the Supreme Court, it was argued that the Bombay High Court had no jurisdiction to pass the order that it did, because, effectively, it was setting up a parallel censorship mechanism that had no basis in any law. Instead of deciding the jurisdictional question, the Supreme Court reposted the case for hearing on Tuesday, one day after the Bombay High Court-appointed “committee” was to submit its “report”.

On Monday, February 6, the “Committee” submitted its “Report”, recommending the deletion of four scenes from the film. The producers attempted a compromise, promising a partial deletion. The Bombay High Court accepted this compromise, and passed an order requiring deletion and re-certification of the film.

On Tuesday, February 7 (i.e., today morning), the producers appeared before the Supreme Court, and withdrew their petition challenging the Bombay High Court’s order of January 30, while keeping the question of law open.

Judicial Censorship by the Bombay High Court

Let us first consider the Bombay High Court’s actions in finding a prima facie case of “contempt”, and deciding to set up a “Committee” to watch the film. The procedure for the certification of films is contained in the Cinematograph Act of 1952. The Act makes it clear that film certification is to be conducted by a Board of Censors, who are to take their decision in accordance with the freedom of speech provisions in the Constitution, and government-mandated guidelines. If a person is aggrieved by the Board’s refusal to grant a certificate, or to grant a certificate that only allows restricted viewing, she may appeal to an appellate Tribunal (note that the Act only contemplates an appeal in the case a certificate is denied or restricted; it does not contemplate a person appealing in cases where a certificate is granted – for obvious and good reasons).

What role does a Court have in these proceedings? The short answer is: none. The statutory body that decides on the issue of certifying films for public exhibition, and on requiring cuts and modifications, is the Censor Board, with an appeal lying to an Appellate Tribunal (under the Act, the Government also has revisional powers). Under the Cinematograph Act, the Courts have no power to certify, modify, or refuse certification of films.

Of course, this does not mean that the Courts are excluded altogether. Film-makers and producers who believe that the Board – and the Appellate Tribunal – have acted illegally in denying a certificate or requiring cuts, and have violated their right to free speech, can approach the High Court (and, if that fails, the Supreme Court). The Courts can – and have – set aside decisions of the Board and the Tribunal on this basis.

Another way in which the Courts get involved is if, notwithstanding the Censor certificate, there is an allegation that the film has broken the law. To what (limited) extent a censor certificate grants film producers “safe harbour” from prosecution has been long-debated in the Courts, but is not of relevance to this case.

The third way in which the Courts can get involved is if third parties object to the grant of a certificate by the Censor Board, and move the Court against that decision. This is what was famously done in the Phoolan Devi CaseThe grant of an “A” certificate to the film was challenged by members of the Gujjar community before the High Court. The High Court quashed the certificate. The Supreme Court set aside the judgment of the High Court.

One might begin by asking what standing a third person has to challenge the grant of a film certificate by a Tribunal to a film-producer; however, the limitless rules of standing that now exist in Indian Courts have made that question more or less redundant. Let us assume, then, that a third person approaches the Court (as in this case), and argues that the Censor Board misapplied the provisions of the Cinematograph Act and the Guidelines, and wrongly granted the Certificate. In the first instance, it is important to note that, in light of the fact that the Cinematograph Act clearly envisages the Board as the certifying authority, the Court should not lightly substitute its views for those of the Board (a proposition that has been repeatedly upheld); the Court should only intervene when there is a clear illegality in the grant of the certificate. There is, however, a further question: what form should that intervention make? It is here that it becomes crucial to note that in the absence of a law that authorises it to do so, a Court cannot censor speech. As I have pointed out before, under Article 19(2) of the Constitution, speech can only be restricted by a “law” made by the “State”. For the purposes of Article 19(2), it has been held multiple times that the Court is not the State, and its orders are not “law”.

Consequently, in the absence of a law, it is not for the Court to order cuts to a filmAt best, the Court can find that the Censor Board made an error, point out what the error was, and then remand the case back to the Board to decide once more in accordance with law (the Bombay High Court’s 6th February order does ask the Censor Board to re-certify the film, but also makes it clear what the cuts are).

What the Court certainly cannot do is to set up an entirely parallel censorship authority – in this case, a “committee” of three people to watch the film and suggest cuts. No law contemplates that, and since Article 19(1)(a) is abundantly clear on the requirement of a “law” for censoring speech, the Bombay High Court’s setting up of the “committee” was entirely without jurisdiction. It is an instance of what I have called “judicial censorship“, a trend that is growing frighteningly in recent times.

Judicial Evasion by the Supreme Court

Before the Supreme Court, this exact plea – that the Bombay High Court had no jurisdiction to set up a parallel censorship authority – was taken. To this threshold question, the Supreme Court made a truly astonishing remark: it told the film producers to go and raise this objection at the High Court itself. On being informed that the objection had been made only to be rejected, the Supreme Court then said: “the Committee will make its report on Monday. We’ll keep the matter for Tuesday. Come back to us then if you have a problem.”

In other words, when it was argued before the Supreme Court that the Bombay High Court had illegally set a procedure (for censorship) in motion, the Supreme Court’s answer was “let’s wait and see what the outcome of this disputed procedure is, and then you come back to us.” This is patently illogical. The Supreme Court had to decide the question one way or the other: either to uphold the High Court’s jurisdiction in setting up a “committee”, or to set it aside. It elected to do neither.

However, the Supreme Court’s non-action was scarcely neutral. By the time that the “Committee” released its “report” on Monday recommending cuts, the film’s release date was four days away. The producers had a simple choice: contest this, risk a potentially costly delay and a potential defeat at the end of it – or accept the cuts, and ensure that the film was released on time. In view of everything that the Bombay High Court had done until then, and the Supreme Court’s clear disinterest in protecting the free speech rights of the filmmakers and producers, they took the sensible course of action: accepted the cuts, and moved on.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear and decide the question of jurisdiction on Friday, therefore, was a case of what I’ve described as judicial evasion. When faced with a crucial constitutional issue, and one that requires a decisive decision one way or another, the Court’s response is to refuse to decide, and to keep the case hanging. In doing so, the Court effectively decides – in favour of the status quo, which more often than not amounts to contracting rights – but also exempts itself from the necessity and responsibility of giving reasons for what would be perceived as a regressive and anti-rights decision. This is precisely what happened in the Jolly LLB 2 case.

Misapplication of Law

Lastly, not only was the Bombay High Court’s decision to set up a “committee” entirely illegal and without jurisdiction, its two orders – on January 30 and February 6 – are patently erroneous. Its initial prima facie finding of “contempt” on the basis of online trailers goes against a range of Supreme Court judgments that make it clear that films have to be seen as a whole (in fact, this was the exact reason that the Delhi High Court dismissed the PIL against Jolly LLB 1). And secondly, the findings of the “Committee” that four scenes did amount to contempt is erroneous on two counts. First, no deference is shown to the findings of the Censor Board. The “Committee” – whose existence has no legal basis –  acts as if it is an entirely fresh censor board, and thus reduces the statutory Board itself to a nullity.

Secondly, it has now been made abundantly clear – both in case law and by a 2006 amendment to the Contempt of Courts Act – that contempt of court is not about protecting the “reputation” of the judiciary, but about ensuring that the course of justice is not interfered with. There is no analysis to show how scenes from a satirical film about the legal profession would have interfered with the course of justice. Is it the (implied) case of the “Committee” and the Court that the “reputation” of the judiciary rests on such fragile foundations that a comic film can end up interfering with the course of justice?

Conclusion

Let us recap what happened to Jolly LLB 2. A film that had been cleared by the Certification Board was nonetheless held by a High-Court appointed “committee”, which was constituted by pure judicial fiat, to be in “contempt of Court”, and required to delete four scenes. This order rested upon no other foundation than the Court telling the film producers, “I am doing this because I can.” The Supreme Court refused to intervene. In other words, through judicial evasion, the Supreme Court enabled the Bombay High Court’s judicial censorship.

And now consider the consequences: this entire incident will give a fillip to persons with “hurt feelings” to file petitions and PILs against films that have been granted certificates by the Censor Board. As long as a petitioner is lucky enough to find judges such as those of the Bombay High Court who agree with him, the film will have to go through a fresh round of reviewing and censoring. And the Supreme Court will not interfere. True, in this case, the “question of law” was left open – but one wonders when it will come to be decided, and in what fashion.

I have written before that over the last few years, it is neither the legislature nor the executive that is the greatest threat to the freedom of speech, but the judiciary. Whether it is Article 21 or Article 142 or PILs, the judiciary is not only failing to act as a shield to protect free speech against State encroachment, but is acting like a sword to cut down free speech. To the framers of our Constitution, who saw an independent judiciary as the only bulwark between civil rights and State power, this would be a matter of great dismay.

And lastly, consider the optics of this whole situation. A film was made that satirises the legal profession. A lawyer filed a petition against it. Two judges decided that this film – which satirised the legal profession – was prima facie in contempt of court. They constituted a “committee” – a majority of whose members were also lawyers – to watch the film and decide whether their own profession was being permissible satirised (in Law School, one of the first principles we were taught is thou shalt not be a judge in thine cause – except, it seems, when you literally can). Two Supreme Court judges were asked to intervene. They refused. The “committee” – with its lawyers – found that the film “defamed” the judiciary, and ordered cuts. These cuts were implemented by two other judges. To a film that satirised the legal profession.

Whichever way you want to slice this, it does not look good.

(Disclaimer: this writer was involved in the Supreme Court hearing on February 3, on behalf of the film producers. The account of the Supreme Court proceedings on that day is based on first-hand experience).

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Online Speech and Intermediary Liability: The Delhi High Court’s MySpace Judgment

On the 23rd of December, a division bench of the Delhi High Court handed down its judgment in MySpace vs Super Cassettes. In the process, the Court laid down some important legal principles regarding intermediary liability in the case of copyright claims, the scope of safe harbour provisions, and injunctions. The judgment, therefore, has significant ramifications for online speech, and ought to be studied closely. It is also worth reading because it is one of the first Indian judgments (to my knowledge) that focuses upon the special characteristics of the Internet from the point of view of expanding online speech, and not contracting it. As I shall argue, on the core question before it – that is, balancing online speech with the statutory mandate of protecting copyright – the Court successfully negotiated a minefield of legal and technical issues, and – apart from one finding – managed to tread a fine line between the competing interests.

Background

In 2008, Super Cassettes filed a suit against MySpace. It argued that a lot of the songs and other audio-visual content that MySpace hosted on its website violated its copyright. It further argued that MySpace profited from this through advertisements that were inserted into the videos. Furthermore, MySpace’s existing systems of protecting copyright – i.e., a terms of service agreement with its users directing them not to violate copyright, a notice-and-takedown system where MySpace would take down copyright infringing material on being notified by the holder, and a Rights Management Tool, whereby copyright holders could sign up, create digital fingerprints of its content, and then submit it to MySpace, who would then block mirror content – could not absolve it of liability under Indian law. Super Cassettes argued that MySpace had violated provisions of the Copyright Act. It sought a permanent injunction, and damages.

MySpace argued, on the other hand, that it was an intermediary, and had no role to play in making, modifying, or uploading content upon its website. The advertisements that were shown just before a video played were through an automated process, depending upon matches between keywords. Consequently, MySpace was not modifying any content in its own right, and was protected under the safe harbour provisions of the Information Technology Act. Furthermore, a general injunction to remove copyright-infringing material was impossible to comply with, because not only were there more than 100,000 works on the website which MySpace would have to sift through, but it would also have to monitor every future work that was uploaded on its website.

On hearings for interim orders, the single judge of the High Court found that MySpace was prima facie in breach of the Copyright Act by providing a “space” where infringing material was published, and with “knowledge” that such material was being published (the two requirements under Section 51(a)(ii) of the Copyright Act). The single judge further held that MySpace’s role went beyond that of an intermediary; and in any event, under the proviso to Section 81 of the Information Technology Act, the provisions of that Act (including the safe harbour provisions) were clearly subservient to copyright law. MySpace’s safeguards – such as the Rights Management Tools – were not relevant to a finding of liability for copyright infringement, and could only come into play as factors for mitigating damages. Consequently, the single judge granted a qua timet injunction (i.e., an injunction against future acts), prohibiting MySpace from allowing uploads of any material that breached Super Cassette’s copyright, and to delete from its website the songs and other content about which Super Cassettes provided it with the relevant details.

MySpace appealed.

Issues before the Division Bench

At the outset, it is important to note that the division bench of the High Court was concerned only with the issue of the injunction order – that is, the order of injunction – and not with the overall suit between the parties. Consequently, Justice S. Ravindra Bhat, writing the judgment of the Court, framed the following three legal issues for adjudication:

 “First whether MySpace could be said to have knowledge of infringement as to attract Section 51(a)(ii) and consequent liability; Second, does proviso to Section 81 override the “safe harbor” granted to intermediaries under Section 79 of the IT Act third, possibility of harmonious reading of Sections 79 and 81 of the IT Act and Section 51 of the Copyright Act.” (paragraph 31)

Knowledge of Infringement

Section 51(a)(ii) of the Copyright Act states that copyright shall be infringed when a person “permits for profit any place to be used for the communication of the work to the public where such communication constitutes an infringement of the copyright in the work, unless he was not aware and had no reasonable ground for believing that such communication to the public would be an infringement of copyright.”

The Division Bench agreed with the single judge that MySpace’s website was a (virtual) “place”, from which MySpace earned profit (paragraph 34). The key question was whether, in the absence of specific notice, MySpace could be said to be “aware” or have “reasonable grounds to believe” that copyright infringement was taking place on its website. The single judge had held that the very presence of safeguard provisions and tools (such as notice-and-take-down) in MySpace’s user agreements signalled a “general awareness” that copyright was being infringed on its website, and this was enough for liability to be attracted under S. 51(a)(ii). The Division Bench disagreed. In paragraph 35, Justice Bhat held:

“Simply put, that test [of general awareness] overlooks that unlike “real” space, in a virtual world, where millions of videos are uploaded daily, it is impossible under available technology standards to identify the streaming content, which actually infringes. Knowledge has a definite connotation, i.e a consciousness or awareness and not mere possibility or suspicion of something likely. The nature of the Internet media is such that the interpretation of knowledge cannot be the same as that used for a physical premise.”

He then went on to develop this argument in the succeeding paragraphs, noting that in the specific context of the Internet, where a system could store “millions” of videos, the concept of “constructive”, or assumed knowledge, from the offline world, could not simply be transplanted here. Rather:

“The requirement is to give specific information to the content host or the website(MySpace) that infringement occurs with respect to the specific work. A general or vague description of the works would be insufficient as this then leaves room for MySpace to rely guesswork as to what content has to be removed. Therefore, the onus is upon the plaintiff to give detailed description of its specific works, which are infringed to enable the web host to identify them.” (paragraph 36)

Super Cassettes argued, however, that it had notified to MySpace a list of more than 100,000 songs in which it had copyright. The Division Bench held that this was insufficient, especially because when MySpace had done a preliminary scan of these 100,000 songs, it had found that many of them had been uploaded by distributors or performers who might well have been covered under copyright exceptions (such as, perhaps, fair use). Consequently, the Division Bench held:

“It is only when a specific work is mentioned can it be said that MySpace possesses knowledge of a work being infringed on its website. Providing long lists of all works, tasking MySpace with identifying and removing infringing content is not enough. It is only when MySpace has specific or actual knowledge or when it has reasonable belief, based on information supplied by SCIL and if despite such knowledge or reasonable belief it fails to act can it be held liable for infringement…  in other words, an indiscriminate and blind acceptance of SCIL‟s entire list to run a general filter and “take down” all content would result in grave damage and result in likely multifarious disputes: with up-loaders, many of whom are original creators in their own right and might have used a miniscule quantum of the copyrighted content in… their larger original creation; with distributors, who might hold genuine licenses and with others who create versions, remixes or original titles which may have little content; still there may be other content uploaders whose material only superficially resembles with the titles owned by SCIL, because of the lyrics or titles but is otherwise genuine creation with its independent copyright.” (paragraph 38)

In the present case, therefore, the Court held that MySpace had no prima facie knowledge of infringement (paragraph 39).

The Interplay Between the Copyright Act and Intermediary Liability under the IT Act

This brought the Court to issues 2 and 3 (see above). MySpace had sought sanctuary under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act. Section 79 provides a safe harbour to intermediaries from being held liable for unlawful content on their servers. This safe harbour is lost if the intermediary receives “actual knowledge” that it is hosting unlawful content. And recall that in Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, the Supreme Court had held that “actual knowledge” under Section 79 was limited to either a court order, or a government directive.

As we can see, there is an overlap between Section 51 of the Copyright Act and Section 79 of the IT Act. Section 51(a)(ii) makes an entity liable for secondary infringement if it is “aware” or has “reasonable grounds for believing” that infringement is happening on its “place”. Section 79, which otherwise protects intermediaries, nonetheless revokes this protection if the intermediary has “actual knowledge” that its platform is being used for law-breaking (which includes copyright violation). Now, the key question is this: if the general standard of protection afforded to intermediaries under the IT Act (actual knowledge) – as interpreted in Shreya Singhal – is greater than the general protection in cases of secondary infringement under the Copyright Act (non-awareness), then which of the two laws will apply to the specific case of an intermediary whose website is being used for potential copyright infringement? Or, to put the question another way: if the intermediary does not have “actual knowledge” (as per Shreya Singhal) under S. 79 – that is, if it has not been notified by a court order or by the government that copyright infringement is taking place – can it nonetheless be held liable under Section 51 if it has the “awareness” of copyright infringement (as held by the Division Bench in Issue 1) taking place?

It is here that I part ways with the Division Bench. Super Cassettes argued that the IT Act was not applicable at all to cases of copyright infringement, since the proviso to Section 81 of that Act stated that “nothing contained in this Act shall restrict any person from exercising any right conferred under the Copyright Act.” The Division Bench – in my view, correctly – rejected this argument. It pointed to the language of Section 79 itself, which itself had an overriding clause: “Notwithstanding anything contained in any law for the time being in force but subject to the provisions of sub-sections (2) and (3)…” – which, according to the Division Bench, meant “that the only restriction to be placed in the application of Section 79(1) is contained within the section: Section 79 (2) and Section 79 (3).” Consequently:

“In this Court‟s opinion, Section 79 grants a measured privilege to an intermediary. However, that would not mean that the rights guaranteed under the Copyright Act are in any manner curtailed. All Section 79 does is regulates the liability in respect of intermediaries while the Copyright Act grants and controls rights of a copyright owner. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to conceive how one would pose a barrier in the applicability of the other. The true intent of Section 79 is to ensure that in terms of globally accepted standards of intermediary liabilities and to further digital trade and economy, an intermediary is granted certain protections. Section 79 is neither an enforcement provision nor does it list out any penal consequences for non-compliance. It sets up a scheme where intermediaries have to follow certain minimum standards to avoid liability; it provides for an affirmative defence and not a blanket immunity from liability.” (paragraph 47)

In the succeeding paragraphs, the Court stressed on the fact that “Parliament by amending the IT Act intended to create a separate provision and regime for intermediaries…”, and that “given the supplementary nature of the provisions- one where infringement is defined and traditional copyrights are guaranteed and the other where digital economy and newer technologies have been kept in mind, the only logical and harmonious manner to interpret the law would be to read them together.” So far, so good. However, in paragraph 50, the Court then held:

“Section 79(3) of the IT Act specifies that when a person has actual knowledge or upon notification by the appropriate government or its authority fails to expeditiously remove or disable access to an unlawful content then the immunity granted under Section 79(1) is revoked. The knowledge contemplated under this section is actual knowledge. In Shreya Singhal (supra), Section 79(3) with Rule 3(4) of the Rules were read down to mean receipt of actual knowledge from a court order or on being notified by the appropriate government. However, this was in respect of restrictions under Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court was conscious of the fact that if millions of requests for take down are made, it would become difficult for intermediaries (such as Google) to identify legitimate requests. In the case of copyright laws it is sufficient that MySpace receives specific knowledge of the infringing works in the format provided for in its website from the content owner without the necessity of a court order.”

However, instead of reading Section 51 of the Copyright Act and Section 79 of the IT Act harmoniously, this effectively subordinates the latter to the former. In the first part of its judgment, the Court undertaken an independent analysis of Section 51, and arrived at a “knowledge” standard for intermediaries. This standard – of specific notice – was considerably less protective than Section 79 IT Act’s requirement of “actual knowledge” through a court order or the government. In paragraph 50, the Court simply adopted the specific notice standard “in the case of copyright laws.” In other words, intermediaries who were otherwise protected under Section 79 of the IT Act would lose their safe harbour if they were given specific notice of copyright infringement by the copyright owner, even in the absence of a court order or a government directive.

The Court justified this by pointing to the “red flag” requirements under the American DMCA, which is another form of notice-and-take-down. That, however, cannot be an answer to why the actual notice standard laid down in Shreya Singhal would be diluted to specific notice in case of copyright claims. And the broader problem is this: even under the Division Bench’s heightened requirement of “specific notice”, the primary onus of deciding upon the validity of a copyright claim, and deciding whether or not to take down content (thus restricting online speech) rests upon a private party – MySpace. The problems with this approach have been well-documented: facing the threat of losing their safe harbour and being sued for damages, private parties will err on the side of taking down content. MySpace, in all likelihood, will have neither the resources to parse Super Cassette’s notice to see whether the infringing content is saved by fair use, or by de minimis use, or any other exception to copyright infringement – and nor will it be willing to take the risk of affirmatively rejecting a notice, and then facing the possibility of extended litigation. It was precisely because of this that the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal restricted “actual knowledge” to a court order or a government notification. In my view, the Division Bench unjustifiably dilutes that standard for copyright claims.

Furthermore, the matter is somewhat complicated by the operative part of the judgment. In paragraph 68(b), in its record of its findings, the Court notes:

“Section 51(a)(ii), in the case of internet intermediaries contemplates actual knowledge and not general awareness. Additionally, to impose liability on an intermediary, conditions under Section 79 of the IT Act have to be fulfilled.”

However, this seems to run counter to what came before: under this, Shreya Singhal’s actual knowledge standard under Section 79 would apply over and above Section 51’s actual knowledge standard that the Division Bench laid down while discussing Issue 1.

Here is one possible reconciliation: since MySpace was already following a notice-and-take-down rule, the Division Bench’s discussion on specific notice should be limited to finding that what MySpace was doing was consistent with law. The Division Bench did not say that a specific notice would be sufficient to erase safe harbour as a general proposition of law. Rather, in paragraph 68(b), it made clear that the general proposition of law was that intermediaries would continue to be protected even in cases of copyright infringement, unless Shreya Singhal’s standard of actual knowledge was satisfied.

This would be a far more speech-protective reading of the judgment. However, it is a difficult one to sustain, in light of the clear observations of the Court, which we discussed above. This is one issue, then, on which the judgment’s import is – in my view – slightly unclear.

Qua Timet Injunctions

Lastly – and very importantly – the Division Bench agreed with MySpace’s contention that the qua timet injunction was virtually impossible to enforce. Justice Bhat made the crucial observation that:

“A further balancing act is required which is that of freedom of speech and privatized censorship. If an intermediary is tasked with the responsibility of identifying infringing content from non-infringing one, it could have a chilling effect on free speech; an unspecified or incomplete list may do that. In an order of relief such as that passed by the learned Single Judge, MySpace would be in contempt of court for not complying with an order, which is otherwise impossible or at best onerous and cumbersome of performance. In order to avoid contempt action, an intermediary would remove all such content, which even remotely resembles that of the content owner. Such kind of unwarranted private censorship would go beyond the ethos of established free speech regimes.”

(Of course, as I argued above, it is precisely this privatised censorship which is a problem with the specific notice standard that the Court did endorse).

The Court also noted that if MySpace was forced to remove content in accordance with the vague terms of the qua timet injunction, it might even end up being in breach of its contract with its users, in cases where lawful content ended up being taken down. Consequently, the Court finished by holding:

“Without a notice containing the details and location of the exact works in which infringement is complained of, MySpace cannot be expected to scan through such large number of videos to discern infringement. This is not only impractical but also dangerous for reasons discussed previously. A vague order of injunction against works which are yet to exist is not only contrary to law but also impossible to monitor. Therefore, SCIL cannot give vague and general lists of its works but will have to give notice with specific details as well as locations of the works, which the appellant shall remove within 36 hours of receiving such notice.” (paragraph 66)

This is very important, in particular, because it bucks the trend of the High Courts granting qua timet injunctions (accompanied by John Doe orders) almost as a matter of course.

Conclusion

MySpace vs Super Cassettes is a landmark judgment that contributes in no small measure to an evolving international jurisprudence on online free speech and intermediary liability. The High Court pays close attention to the characteristics of the internet, and is very solicitous to how its holdings will affect the flow of information on the internet. Unlike other judgments, where the fluid and flexible nature of the internet has been used to justify greater regulation, the Delhi High Court, in MySpace, is concerned to ensure that this fluidity and flexibility is not stifled by legal concepts developed for the offline world. While its exact finding on the interplay between the Copyright Act and the IT Act is a little unclear, the judgment breaks new ground in its analysis of actual knowledge (for intermediaries) under the Copyright Act, its refusal of a qua timet injunction, and its finding that the Copyright Act will not exclude the safe harbour provisions of the IT Act. It is a judgment that should be studied and discussed closely.

 

 

 

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Of Missed Opportunities and Unproven Assumptions: The Supreme Court’s Election Judgment

On Monday, a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court split 4 – 3 on the interpretation of Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People Act. Section 123(3) defines a “corrupt electoral practice” as:

“The appeal by a candidate or his agent or by any other person with the consent of a candidate or his election agent to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion, race, caste, community or language or the use of, or appeal to religious symbols or the use of, or appeal to, national symbols, such as the national flag or the national emblem, for the furtherance of the prospects of the election of that candidate or for prejudicially affecting the election of any candidate.”

The interpretive question before the Court was whether the underlined “his” qualified only the candidate (and his agent etc), or whether it qualified the person to whom the appeal was addressed; in other words, whether “his religion…” referred to the religion of the candidate or the religion of the elector. Four judges (“the Majority”) held that “his” was to be interpreted broadly, and referred to the religion of the candidate, his agent, or any other person who, with the candidate or his agent’s consent, was making the “appeal” for votes, as well as the religion of the elector. Justice Lokur wrote for himself and for Justice Nageswara Rao, while Justice Bobde and Chief Justice Thakur wrote concurring opinions.

Justice Chandrachud wrote the dissent, for himself and on behalf of Justices Lalit and Goel. He held that the word “his” was to be construed narrowly, as applying only to the speaker (i.e., the person who made the appeal for votes, whether the candidate or his agent, or any other person with their consent).

In my view, the Majority holding is open to doubt, both linguistically and philosophically. Before that, however, note that this judgment is important not only for what it holds, but for what it refuses to hold; in particular, on the relationship between elections and the freedom of expression.

Free Speech, Elections, and the Strange Case of Jamuna Prasad

One of the arguments raised by Shyam Divan, senior counsel for the Petitioners, was that a broad reading of Section 123(3) ought to be avoided, since it would run afoul of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution (freedom of speech and expression). Justice Lokur’s majority opinion addressed this contention at the end, and cursorily. Justice Lokur held:

“Although it was submitted that a broad interpretation given to sub-section (3) of Section 123 of the Act might make it unconstitutional, no serious submission was made in this regard. A similar submission regarding the constitutional validity of Section 123(5) of the Act was dealt with rather dismissively by the Constitution Bench in Jamuna Prasad Mukhariya v Lachhi Ram when the sweep of the corrupt practice on the ground of religion was rather broad.”

The Court then cited the relevant paragraph from Jamuna Prasad, and concluded: “We need say nothing more on the subject.”

Let us, however, look a little more closely at what Jamuna Prasad – a five-judge bench case from 1954 – actually said:

“These laws do not stop a man from speaking. They merely prescribe conditions which must be observed if he wants to enter Parliament. The right to stand as a candidate and contest an election is not a common law right. It is a special right created by statute and can only be exercised on the conditions laid down by the statute. The Fundamental Rights Chapter has no bearing on a right like this created by statute. The appellants have no fundamental right to be elected members of Parliament. If they want that they must observe the rules. If they prefer to exercise their right of free speech outside these rules, the impugned sections do not stop them. We hold that these sections are intra vires.”

There are at least five reasons why the argument in Jamuna Prasad is not only erroneous, but manifestly erroneous. FirstJamuna Prasad misconstrues what is at stake. By characterising Section 123 has “prescribing conditions” for entering Parliament, it ignores the fact that Section 123 regulates campaign speech, which is an example par excellence of political speech, and political speech, in turn, is at the heart of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and expression.

Secondly, Jamuna Prasad’s logic reduces freedom of speech to a formality, by allowing the State to restrict large swathes of speech under the guise of “prescribing conditions”; tomorrow, for instance, if the State was to ban all speaking in public places, Jamuna Prasad would justify it on the basis that it merely prescribes conditions for entering public places. The extreme end of this logic would justify any penal prohibition on speech by holding that it merely prescribes a condition for staying out of jail.

ThirdlyJamuna Prasad’s logic was rejected five years later in In Re Kerala Education Bill, which laid down the doctrine of unconstitutional conditions: even if an individual has there is no constitutional right to “x” – and even if “x” is only a privilege – the State cannot make his access to “x” conditional upon his giving up a fundamental right. Concretely, the State cannot tell me – without further constitutional justification – that I am allowed to stand for parliament only if I give up my fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.

FourthlyJamnua Prasad’s logic was expressly rejected by two Constitution Benches in the 1960s – Kameshwar Prasad and O.K. Ghosh – in the context of the workplace. In both these cases, laws restricting the freedom of association at the workplace were challenged, and in both cases, they were struck down. The State argued that the laws were not infringing anyone’s fundamental rights, since they were only conditions for joining government employment. A person was free not to join government employment, and associate with whomever she pleased. The Court rightly made short shrift of this argument, holding that a person did not give up her fundamental rights after joining government employment. Similarly, a person does not give up their right to freedom of speech and expression on deciding to contest an election.

Fifthly, whatever the status of the right to contest elections at the time of Jamuna Prasad, it is now well-settled in a number of cases that the right to contest elections is more than a statutory right; it is a “constitutional right” (what, precisely, this means has not yet been clarified); and furthermore, the “freedom” to vote is an aspect of the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a), a fundamental right. It has also been held that the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) includes the freedom to receive information. Consequently, at the very least, from the perspective of the voters, Section 123 implicates the freedom of speech and expression.

Consequently, there were strong reasons for the Court to reconsider Jamuna Prasad, and rethink the relationship between freedom of speech and elections. Its failure to do so – and to continue to endorse the line of cases that counterintuitively places free speech and elections in isolated, hermetically sealed spheres, is disappointing.

The Grammar of Section 123(3)

Let us return to Section 123(3). Paring it back to its essentials, it states: “The appeal by a candidate or his agent or by any other person with the consent of a candidate or his election agent to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion, race, caste, community or language.” 

At the outset, there is one way in which the Majority is clearly incorrect. The word “his” cannot qualify both the speaker and the audience (the electors). When the section reads “the appeal by a candidate… to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion…“, the placement of the word “his”, as a matter of grammar, requires it to qualify only one potential subject.

Once that is clear, it becomes even more obvious that the majority’s interpretation is unsustainable as a matter of language, and no amount of purposive interpretation can save it. This is because Section 123(3) contains only one subject: the speaker (whether it is the candidate, his agent, or any person with their consent). The Section does not say “the appeal by a candidate… to any person to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion…” If that was the language of the statute, then, linguistically, it would be equally plausible for “his” to qualify “to any person” (i.e., the elector), or to qualify “the candidate”. We would then have to look to the purpose of the statute to determine which of the two was the correct interpretation. However, when we have the sentence “the appeal by a candidate… to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion“, there is only one plausible interpretation: “his religion” refers to the religion of “any person”, who is to be voted (or not voted) for.

In my respectful submission, therefore, the matter should have ended here. The language of Section 123(3) could not sustain the meaning that the Majority placed upon it.  What Justice Lokur did then, however, was to marshal historical evidence in support of his broad interpretation (interestingly, in his dissenting opinion, Justice Chandrachud used the same historical material to arrive at the opposite conclusion). According to him, the legislative policy was to preserve the “purity” of elections by prohibiting appeals to “divisive” and “fissiparous” tendencies; religion, caste, language, and community were examples par excellence of such tendencies. If this was the goal of the statute, then, according to Justice Lokur, it made no sense to limit the reach of the statute only to the religion (etc) of the candidates; rather, the intention clearly was to eradicate appeals of these kinds from the electoral process as a whole.

If one accepts Justice Lokur’s reading of the legislative history behind the provision, then one will probably accept the broader reading of Section 123. However, as pointed out above, Justice Lokur’s reliance on draft bills and statements on the floor of the house was countered by Justice Chandrachud, who pointed to categorical statements by the drafters, to the effect that the kinds of statements they were concerned about were the “I am a Muslim, vote for me” kind. If the legislative history is ambiguous, and does not admit of a clear answer, then there are two huge assumptions in Justice Lokur’s argument. The first is that “divisiveness” and elections are antithetical to each other. This, however, is a deeply counter-intuitive proposition. Elections are centrally about divisiveness: candidates seek to set themselves apart from their rivals by putting themselves forward as best-placed to protect the interests of their constituents. What, precisely, is illegitimate about a candidate promising to protect his constituents’ religious or linguistic interests? Or, to take another kind of example, class divisions can be every bit as divisive, and potentially violent, as religious divisions; in fact, Section 123(3A) prohibits promoting enmity “between classes”. Divisiveness, therefore, seems to be an incomplete justification of Section 123(3).

Secondly, Justice Lokur’s argument assumes that from the point of view of the electoral process, there is no difference between what an election candidate can legally do, and how a voter ought to exercise their vote. It is on the basis of this assumption that he bases his argument that it would make little sense to apply Section 123(3) only to candidates. In doing so, however, he does not engage with the important argument made by Justice Chandrachud in dissent: that there is a non-trivial distinction between a candidate and his electors, since the candidate, in a democracy, is meant to represent his constituency as a whole. The candidate cannot directly claim, therefore, that he will represent only a subset of his constituency.  There is, however, no similar constraint upon the voter. If this distinction holds (and I admit that it is tenuous, given that candidates are always appealing to specific sectors in their constituencies), then limiting the reach of Section 123(3) to candidates makes sense.

Lastly, Thakur CJI, in his concurring opinion, adds to Justice Lokur’s argument by making the claim that Indian secularism requires religion to be excluded entirely from the secular sphere. I respectfully disagree. The Court’s own jurisprudence suggests the contrary: at the heart of its “essential religious practices” test under Article 25 jurisprudence is judicial intervention into the tenets of religion, and judicial selection of which of those tenets constitute “essential practices”. There are other examples, but this is enough to demonstrate that the categorical statement excluding religion from the secular sphere needs further argument before it is to be accepted.

(I shall be engaging upon a more elaborate defence of Justice Chandrachud’s dissent elsewhere).

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