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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

The Illegality of the Supreme Court’s National Anthem Order

In an order dictated today, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Dipak Misra J., directed all cinema halls across the country to play the national anthem before every film, along with the Indian flag on the cinema screen. The Court then directed cinema-goers to stand up to “show respect” while the anthem was being played, and – apparently upon a suggestion from the Attorney-General – that the doors of the cinema hall be locked while the anthem was being played. A number of other rather vague “interim reliefs” were also granted.

What passes for “reasoning” in this “order” ought not to be dignified with legal analysis. I will say no more about it. And the case for the opposition can scarcely be better made than Justice Jackson’s opinion in West Virginia vs Barnette. However, there is a deeper issue that goes beyond the behaviour of this particular bench of the Supreme Court, and merits some examination. This is something that I have referred to before as “judicial censorship“. Judicial censorship is suo motu judicial action restricting the freedom of speech, in the absence of an existing law. In my view, judicial censorship is not contemplated by the Constitution, and judicial orders that engage in this form of censorship are illegal and void.

Article 19(1)(a) guarantees to all citizens the freedom of speech and expression. Article 19(2) allows speech to be restricted only by an existing law or a law made by the State. It does not contemplate restriction upon free speech through any other mechanism.

Are judicial orders “law” for the purposes of Article 19(2)? Article 13(3) of the Constitution, which defines “law” for the purposes of Part III as “any Ordinance, order, bye law, rule, regulation, notification, custom or usages having in the territory of India the force of law“, when read noscitur a sociis, seems not to include judicial orders. Now, it may be argued that various judgments have held that Article 141 of the Constitution speaks of the “law” declared by the Supreme Court, and that consequently, Supreme Court judgments or orders constitute “law”. That is true, but textually, Article 141 only envisions the Supreme Court “declaring” law; more importantly, however, it does not follow that the word “law” used in Article 141 carries the same meaning as “law” under Article 13/19(2). To start with, textually, Article 13(3) prefaces its definitional terms with the phrase “In this article… law includes…” The definition, therefore, is specific to Part III of the Constitution.

Secondly, if Supreme Court judgments and orders were to constitute “law” under Article 13, then every such judgment or order would be subject to a further fundamental rights challenge. Dipak Misra J.’s order, for instance, could be challenged in a separate writ petition by either the cinema owners or cinema-goers as a violation of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Perhaps this might not be such a bad thing, but in Naresh Mirajkar vs State of Maharashtra, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court categorically held that this could not be done.

In Mirajkar, the High Court of Bombay passed an order in a libel case, directing that certain evidence tendered in Court could not be made public. Aggrieved journalists moved the Supreme Court under Article 32, arguing that this order violated their Article 19(1)(a) right to freedom of speech and expression. By an 8 – 1 majority, the Supreme Court dismissed their petition. Gajendragadkar CJI’s majority opinion, and the concurring opinions of Sarkar, Shah and Bachawat JJ differed on some points, but all agreed that a judicial order (of the High Court) could not be challenged in writ proceedings under Article 32 of the Constitution. The majority and concurring judgments engaged in a detailed analysis of whether the High Court had jurisdiction to pass the order that it did; having found that it did so, they then held that there was no scope for an Article 32 challenge. Shah J.’s concurring opinion was particularly clear on underlying reasons for this:

“In granting relief to a party claiming to be aggrieved or in punishing an offender, the Court in substance declares that the party who claims that he is aggrieved has or has not a certain right and that the right was or was not infringed by the action of the other party, or that the offender by his action did or did not violate a law which prohibited the action charged against him. Such a determination by a Court therefore will not operate to infringe a fundamental right under Art. 19.

He then observed:

The argument that the inherent power of this Court which may have existed prior to the Constitution must still be tested in the light of Art. 19(2) of the Constitution does not require any serious consideration. If a plea of infringement of a fundamental right under Art. 19 against infringement by a judicial determination may not be set up, in petition under Art. 32, it would not be necessary to consider whether on the footing that such a right is infringed by a judicial determination of the rights of the parties or an order made in aid of determination that the law which confers such inherent power of the Courts is within Art. 19(2). The function of Art. 19(2) is to save laws-existing laws or laws to be made by the State in future-which otherwise infringe the rights under Art. 19. Where the action is such that by its very nature it cannot infringe the rights in Art. 19(1) of the Constitution, an investigation whether the law which authorises the action falls within cl.(2) of Art. 19 may not be called for.

The Supreme Court cannot have it both ways, however. It cannot both curtail speech by equating judicial opinions to “law” under Article 19(2), and simultaneously insulate itself from its decisions then being challenged in writ proceedings for violating Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Admittedly, the Majority and Sarkar J. did not expressly hold that judicial opinions “could not” infringe 19(1)(a) (in fact, both of them went into the merits of the order vis-a-vis 19(1)(a)) – however, having found at the threshold that there was no 19(1)(a) violation, they did not examine the question of whether Article 19(2) was applicable to such cases at all.

There is a deeper reason, however, why judicial censorship violates the Constitution, and that has to do with the separation of powers. As the Supreme Court held in Kharak Singh vs State of UP, if the State action is to be upheld against Part III claims, the State must “satisfy that… the fundamental rights are not infringed by showing that there is a law and that it does amount -to a reasonable restriction. within the meaning of Art. 19 (2) of the Constitution.” The phrase “there is a law” is crucial, because it sets up a threshold safeguard for the protection of fundamental rights. Plain executive action cannot infringe fundamental rights, even if it is “reasonable” within the meaning of Article 19(2). This is because “law”, which ultimately traces its authority to Parliament (whether it is in the form of legislation, or delegated law-making, such as rules or regulations), envisions a public, deliberative process during which – presumably – civil liberties concerns are taken into account at the time of framing. And  after the State makes the law, the Constitution envisages a second layer of safeguards, in the form of judicial review. After the State makes the law, aggrieved citizens can approach the Courts arguing that it violates their fundamental rights.

By engaging in direct judicial censorship, the Court short-circuits this crucial two-step safeguard, and bypasses Parliament altogether. By directly restricting speech, it ensures that the deliberative process envisaged by the Constitution when it requires the State to “make a law” under Article 19(2) is rendered chimerical. This is why such judicial action violates the separation of powers.

Lastly, it may be argued that the Court’s order is justified under Article 142 of the Constitution, which authorises the Court to pass any decree or order “necessary for doing complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it.” However, Article 142 also specifies that this must be done in “the exercise of its jurisdiction.” If my argument is correct, the Court does not have the jurisdiction to restrict speech in the absence of a law, simply by passing orders. And Article 142 cannot be a carte blanche to do anything that takes judicial fancy on any given day.

Writing about the Habeas Corpus judgment, H.M. Seervai wrote that “ordinary men and women would understand Satan saying ‘Evil be thou my good,’ but they were bewildered and perplexed to be told by four learned judges of the Supreme Court, that in substance, the founding fathers had written into the Emergency provisions of our Constitution ‘Lawlessness be thou our law.’” If Mr. Seervai was alive today, I wonder what he would think of judicial orders that do not even seem to consider whether there is a legal basis for what they seek to accomplish.

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Supreme Court to ‘consider’ restricting free speech on grounds of ‘constitutional compassion’

Bar & Bench reports that in light of UP Minister Azam Khan’s statement that a gangrape was a ‘political controversy’, the Supreme Court has framed the following four “questions” for consideration:

“(i)When a victim files an F.I.R. alleging rape, gang rape or murder or such other heinous offences against another person or group of persons, whether any individual holding a public office or a person in authority or in-charge of governance, should be allowed to comment on the crime stating that “it is an outcome of political controversy”, more so, when as an individual, he has nothing to do with the offences in question?

(b) Should the “State”, the protector of citizens and responsible for law and order situation, allow these comments as they have the effect potentiality to create a distrust in the mind of the victim as regards the fair investigation and, in a way, the entire system?

(c) Whether the statements do come within the ambit and sweep of freedom of speech and expression or exceed the boundary that is not permissible?

(d) Whether such comments (which are not meant for self protection) defeat the concept of constitutional compassion and also conception of constitutional sensitivity?”

It has now become almost tedious to repeat that under Article 19(2) of the Constitution, the freedom of speech can only be restricted by a “law”; so where exactly the Supreme Court receives the power to censor speech of its own accord is unclear.

That said, the four “questions” are paradoxically broad and specific at the same time. Is the Supreme Court going to pass an order prohibiting the usage of the words “it is an outcome of political controversy” every time a “heinous offence” occurs? Or is it going to pass an order prohibiting comments that create a distrust in the mind of the victim regarding “the entire system“?

Secondly, what on earth is ‘constitutional compassion’, and where is it found under the eight sub-clauses of Article 19(2)? And yet, perhaps, the question is a little silly. There was no stricter obscenity threshold for ‘historically respectable personalities’ – but the Court invented it in Devidas Tuljapurkar. ‘Constitutional fraternity’ was never a ground for restricting speech under Article 19(2) – but the Court invented it in Subramanian Swamy to uphold criminal defamation. No doubt, in its wisdom, the Court can invent a ‘constitutional compassion’ standard as well.

What that does (and keeps doing) to the sanctity of the constitutional text and structure is another matter.

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Addendum: Free Speech, the Armed Forces, and Albie Sachs

As an addendum to the previous post on the free speech rights of government employees, consider the following brief concurrence, penned by Justice Albie Sachs of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, hearing a case about the rights of soldiers to unionise:

“… a blindly obedient soldier represents a greater threat to the constitutional order and the peace of the realm, than one who regards him or herself as a citizen in uniform, sensitive to his or her responsibilities and rights under the Constitution. The Constitution proclaims that national security is not simply directed towards the maintenance of power but must reflect the resolve of South Africans, as individuals and as a nation, to live as equals, to live in peace and harmony, to be free from fear and want and to seek a better life. [Section 198(a)]. It goes on to require that [t]he security services must act, and must teach and require their members to act, in accordance with the Constitution and the law . . . [Section 199(5)]. It provides expressly that no member of any security service may obey a manifestly illegal order [Section 199(6)] and declares that the primary object of the defence force is to defend and protect the Republic, its territorial integrity and its people . . . in accordance with the Constitution . . . [Section 200(2)]. These provisions clearly contemplate conscientious soldiers of the Constitution who can be expected to fulfil their constitutional duties more effectively if the values of the Constitution extend in appropriate manner to them and infuse their lives in the armed forces.

Secondly, I agree that, important though a communal esprit de corps may be for the armed forces, the mystique that any military force requires cannot take away the need for soldiers to be able to speak in their own distinctive voices on mundane but meaningful questions of service. In my view, however, the freedom of association that ‘everyone’ has [Section 18], and the right to fair labour practices that ‘everyone’ has [Section 23(1)], clearly entitle soldiers to set up a body such as SANDU to look after their employment interests. I therefore do not consider it necessary to go as far as O’Regan J has done in examining the complex question of whether soldiers qualify as ‘workers’ entitled to the panoply of workers’ and trade union rights set out in Section 23 (2), (4) and (5). Nor do I find it necessary to consider whether defining soldiers as workers entitled to form trade unions, and then denying them the right to strike, to organise in the full sense of the term, to engage in meaningful collective bargaining, or to join trade union federations, might only, in the words of Jackson J, result in ‘. . . a promise to the ear to be broken to the hope, a teasing illusion like a munificent bequest in a pauper’s will.’

One can always hope.

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The Free Speech of Government Employees

Last week, the Economic Times carried a story about a proposed change to the All India Service (Conduct) Rules, which would prohibit government officials from “criticising” the government on social media. The Rules already prohibit critical statements on radio broadcasts or in the form of public utterances. In that sense, this change is simply expansionary. It does, however, give us a chance to explore a complex – and unresolved – area of constitutional law: the constitutional rights of government employees. The issue is an interesting one, because in its relationship with its employees, the government assumes two faces: as an employer, with the power to enforce discipline and unity, and as the State, which must respect fundamental rights. The scope of government employees’ rights to freedom of expression and association, therefore, depends upon which of those faces the Courts have considered to be the dominant one, and to what extent.

The story begins in 1957, with the judgment of a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in P. Balakotiah vs Union of India. Certain railway employees were terminated under Section 3 of the Railway Services Rules of 1949. Section 3 stated allowed for termination (in accordance with procedure) of an employee who ” is engaged in or is reasonably suspected to be engaged in subversive activities, or is associated with others in subversive activities in such manner as to raise doubts about his reliability.” There was a further proviso that termination or compulsory retirement could be imposed only if in the view of the authority, retention of the employee was prejudicial towards national security. The case of the government was that the employees in question had been involved with communists, and had carried on agitations resulting in a general strike. The employees challenged both the orders of termination, as well as the Rules, alleging violations of Articles 14, 19 and 311 of the Constitution.

With respect to Article 14, the Court rejected the contention that the phrase “subversive activities” was too vague to provide an intelligible differentium, observing that “subversive activities” in the context of “national security” was precise enough. More importantly, however, the Court rejected the Article 19(1)(c) [freedom of association] argument, in the following terms:

“The argument is that action has been taken against the appellants under the rules, because they are Communists and trade unionists, and the orders terminating their services under R. 3 amount, in substance, to a denial to them of the freedom to form associations, which is guaranteed under Art. 19(1)(c). We have already observed that that is not the true scope of the charges. But apart from that, we do not see how any right of the appellants under Art. 19(1)(c)has been infringed. The orders do not prevent them from continuing to be Communists or trade unionists. Their rights in that behalf remain after the impugned orders precisely what they were before. The real complaint of the appellants is that their services have been terminated; but that involves, apart from Art. 311, no infringement of any of their Constitutional rights. The appellants have no doubt a fundamental right to form associations under Art. 19(1)(c), but they have no fundamental right to be continued in employment by the State, and when their services are terminated by the State they cannot complain of the infringement of any of their Constitutional rights, when no question of violation of Art. 311 arises.”

The reasoning of the Supreme Court can be divided into two prongs. First, the Court holds that since the employees were terminated because of subversive activities (and not because they were associating with communists), Article 19(1)(c) was not attracted. The Court also holds that Article 19(1)(c) would not have been attracted even if the employees had been terminated for associating with communists. The underlying premise (spelt out only partially) is that since there is no antecedent fundamental right to government employment, the government is free to make employment conditional on the requirement that employees do not associate with communists. In this case, therefore, we see that the government qua employer, empowered to determine its own conditions of employment, wins out over the government qua State, which must respect fundamental rights.

The story is then taken up five years later, in 1962, when two Constitution Benches of the Supreme Court decided Kameshwar Prasad vs State of Bihar and O.K. Ghosh vs E.X. Joseph within months of each other. Kameshwar Prasad concerned the constitutional validity of Rule 4A of the Bihar Government Servants’ Rules, which stated that “no Government servant shall participate in any demonstration or resort to any form of strike in connection with any matter pertaining to his conditions of service.” The challenge was only to the prohibition of demonstrations, and not to the prohibition of strikes. On the logic of Balakotiah, this should have been a straightforward dismissal. The Court, however, took a radically different approach, and struck down the Rule as unconstitutional. It started by noting that “the mere fact that a person enters Government service, he does not cease to be “a citizen of India”, nor does that disentitle him to claim the freedoms guaranteed to every citizen.” The Court buttressed this argument by making the textual point that Article 33 of the Constitution specifically allowed the Parliament to modify the application of the fundamental rights chapter to the Armed Forces, forces charged with maintaining public order, and persons involved in intelligence. By omission, therefore, other branches of the government were entitled to the full enjoyment of their Part III rights. Therefore, in order for a restriction upon Article 19(1)(a) or (c) to be valid, it would have to meet the tests of reasonableness under Articles 19(2) and (4).

The State attempted to make the exact argument that had found favour in Balakotiah: that when an employee entered government service, she was deemed to have thereby consented to whatever service conditions the government, qua employer, chose to impose. To press this point, American First Amendment judgments were cited. The Court refused to rely on these judgments, noting that the First Amendment, being framed in absolute terms, had required the US Supreme Court to develop implied limitations to the right to free speech and association over the years, one of which was that of police power. The Indian Constitution, however, specifically stated the conditions under which speech and association could be restricted, and therefore did not allow the Court to traverse beyond the specific sub-clauses of Articles 19(2) and (4) [an aside: this is one of those rare cases where the Indian Supreme Court used the text of Articles 19(2) and (4) to evolve a more speech-protective standard than the American]. Then, Balakotiah was cited before the Court, and the Bench dismissed it in a line, stating that in that case, the validity of the rule had not been challenged. While conceding that the “nature” of the job might require some restrictions upon fundamental rights, such as the right to move freely throughout the territory of India (e.g., if a government servant was posted at a particular place), the Court stressed once more that as a general proposition, government employees had as much right to free speech and association as any other citizen.

Coming to the Rule in question, the Court held that in prohibiting all forms of demonstrations, without showing any proximate link with public disorder, the Rule was over-broad and void. The government’s argument that government servants constituted a specific class of people who needed to be disciplined in order that public order be maintained was also rejected on the ground that there was only one wing of government servants charged with maintaining public order – the police. The Rule, therefore, remained over-broad.

The logic of Kameshwar Prasad was then endorsed in O.K. Ghosh. A government employee was proceeded against for participating in demonstrations “in preparation” of a strike. One of the applicable rules was Rule 4A, which had already been struck down in part in Kameshwar Prasad. The other was Rule 4B, which prohibited government servants from joining associations not recognised by the government. Here, the Court struck down Rule 4B as well, on the same logic. It observed that:

“[Rule 4B] virtually compels a Government servant to withdraw his membership of the Service Association of Government Servants as soon as recognition accorded to the said Association is withdrawn or if, after the Association is formed, no recognition is accorded to it within six months… Can this restriction be. said to be in the interests of public order and can it be said, to be a reasonable restriction ? In our opinion, the only answer to these questions would be in the negative. It is difficult to see any direct or proximate or reasonable connection between the recognition by the Government of the Association and the discipline amongst, and the efficiency of, the members of the said Association. Similarly, it is difficult to see any connection between recognition and public order.”

Notice once again how this logic is directly contrary to that of Balakotiah. While Balakotiah held that Article 19(1)(c) is not even attracted in cases where government qua employer sets the terms of service, Kameshwar Prasad and O.K. Ghosh, on the other hand, held that government qua employer cannot evade the obligations of government qua State, and that therefore, any restriction upon an Article 19(1)(a) or (c) right must be tested under Articles 19(2) and (4), just like you would do for any other citizen. While in O.K. Ghosh the Court conceded that at certain times, service rules dealing with the conduct of government employees could be justified under the public order prong, that determination would be made on a case to case basis, and the standard Article 19(2) – (4) test of proximity would apply.

The last stop of the journey is 1984, and the two-judge bench decision of the Supreme Court in M.H. Devendrappa vs Karnataka Small State Industries. Here, yet again, the Court changed tack. An employee wrote a letter to the Governor of Karnataka, making various allegations against a state corporation, and also issued a press statement. Disciplinary action was taken against him, and he was dismissed from service. The relevant service rules prohibited employees from doing “anything detrimental to the interests or prestige of the Corporation“, and from assisting “any political movement or activity.” This time, the employee’s invocation of Articles 19(1)(a) and (c) were to no avail. The Supreme Court held:

“Rule 22 of the Service Rules is not meant to curtail freedom of speech or expression or the freedom to form associations or unions. It is clearly meant to maintain discipline within the service, to ensure efficient performance of duty by the employees of the Corporation, and to protect the interests and prestige of the Corporation. A Rule which is not primarily designed to restrict any of the fundamental rights cannot be called in question as violating Article 19(1)(a) or 19(1)(c). In fact, in the present proceedings the constitutional validity of Rule 22 is not under challenge. What is under challenge is the order of dismissal passed for violating Rule 22.”

We can start by noting that this is very obviously an incorrect proposition of law. Ever since Bennett Coleman vs Union of India, the Supreme Court had abandoned the “object and form” test for the violation of fundamental rights, in favour of the “effects” test. Consequently, whether a Rule is “designed” to violate fundamental rights is irrelevant; whether, in effect, it – or executive action taken under its aegis – violates fundamental rights is the necessary enquiry.

The Court was then faced with the conflicting precedents in Balakotiah and Kameshwar Prasad/O.K. Ghosh. It wriggled out of the difficulty by a sleight of hand, quoting the following passage in Kameshwar Prasad:

… we should not be taken to imply that in relation to this class of citizens the responsibility arising from official position would not be itself impose some limitations on the exercise of their rights as citizens.”

It then held:

“Therefore, in Kameshwar Prasad’s case (supra) this Court made it clear that it was not in any manner affecting by the said Judgment, the Rules of Government service designed for proper discharge of duties and obligations by Government servants, although they may curtail or impose limitations on their rights under Part III of the Constitution.”

What the Court in Devandrappa neglected to do, however, was to quote what came immediately after the cited paragraph in Kameshwar Prasad. There, the Constitution Bench had taken two specific examples: that of an income tax officer mandated to maintain secrecy of documents under the Income Tax Act, and an election officer mandated to do the same under the Representation of the People Act. The very narrowness and specificity of these examples directly contradicted the broad interpretation that Devandrappa placed upon Kameshwar Prasad, namely that a fundamental rights challenge could be avoided on the ground of requiring “proper discharge of duties by government servants”. The Court performed a similar sleight of hand with O.K. Ghosh, focusing upon its observation about how discipline and efficiency needed to be maintained among government servants, but then refusing to engage in a proximity analysis under Articles 19(2) – (4). Instead, the Court did the exact opposite, endorsing a breathtakingly broad proposition of law, completely at odds with the Supreme Court’s public order jurisprudence:

“In the present case, the restraint is against doing anything which is detrimental to the interests or prestige of the employer. The detrimental action may consist of writing a letter or making a speech. It may consist of holding a violent demonstration or it may consist of joining a political organisation contrary to the Service Rules. Any action which is detrimental to the interests or prestige of the employer clearly underlines discipline within the organisation and also the efficient functioning of that organisation. Such a Rule could be construed as falling under “public order” clause as envisaged by O.K. Ghosh (Supra).”

The Court ended by going back to Balakotiah’s original logic:

“In the present case, joining Government service has, implicit in it, if not explicitly so laid down, the observance of a certain code of conduce necessary for the proper discharge of functions as a Government servant. That code cannot be flouted in the name of other freedoms.”

In sum, therefore, Devendrappa – a two-judge bench – wrongly applied the object-and-form test for fundamental rights violations, and wrongly interpreted Kameshwar Prasad and O.K. Ghosh to uphold far-reaching restrictions upon the free speech of government employees. However, the matter is not so straightforward, because Kameshwar Prasad and O.K. Ghosh themselves changed the law despite being bound by Balakotiah (as a coordinate bench). Kameshwar Prasad – as we have seen – tried to distinguish Balakotiah on the basis that the validity of the rule had not been challenged. However, this was both incorrect and irrelevant. The validity of the relevant rule had been challenged in Balakotiah; and even if it hadn’t, the central logic of Balakotiah – that government qua employer can regulate its terms of service since there is no antecedent fundamental right to government employment – was independent of the vires of any Rule. In other words, therefore, Kameshwar Prasad and O.K. Ghosh incorrectly interpreted Balakotiah, and were then themselves incorrectly interpreted by Devendrappa, giving us, at the end of the day, an initial Constitution Bench decision and a later two-judge bench decision on one side, and two Constitution Bench decisions in the middle on the other.

Here is something, however, that the judgments in Kameshwar Prasad and O.K. Ghosh did not notice. One year after Balakotiah, a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court decided Re Kerala Education BillRe Kerala Education Bill was the first Indian case to lay down the doctrine known elsewhere as the prohibition of “unconstitutional conditions“. The doctrine of unconstitutional conditions prohibits the State from denying citizens a benefit by making access to that benefit conditional upon citizens’ abstaining from exercising any or all of their fundamental rights. This is despite the fact that there is no antecedent right to that benefit in the first place. To take a crude example: the Government cannot require you to access subsidies by taking an Aadhaar Card and thereby sacrificing your private data, even though you have no fundamental right to a subsidy.

The doctrine of unconstitutional conditions clearly knocked the bottom out of Balakotiah’s logic. While there is admittedly no antecedent right to government employment, nor can the government make your employment conditional upon your abstaining from exercising your constitutional rights to free speech and association. And this is exactly what was going on in Balakotiah, in Kameshwar Prasad, in O.K. Ghosh, in Devendrappa and in the proposed social media rules.

As a seven judge bench, Re Kerala Education Bill was well within its rights to impliedly overrule Balakotiah. And as a seven-judge bench, its enunciation of the doctrine of unconstitutional conditions has never been overruled. Consequently, it is my submission that Balakotiah no longer holds the field, that Devendrappa was incorrect in following it, and that Kameshwar Prasad and O.K. Ghosh continue to be good law (although for reasons outside the judgments). Consequently, the proposed social media rules ought to be struck down as unconstitutional.

 

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Why the Supreme Court’s Criminal Defamation Judgment is Per Incuriam

In common law, a judgment that is per incuriam has no legal force or validity, and does not count as precedent. Classically, per incuriam is a very narrow concept, applicable only in two circumstances: to a judgment that is passed in ignorance of a relevant statutory provision, or without considering binding precedent of a coordinate or larger bench. In 2015, however, in Sundeep Kumar Bafna v State of Maharashtra, the Supreme Court expanded the definition of per incuriam, noting that:

“It cannot be over-emphasised that the discipline demanded by a precedent or the disqualification or diminution of a decision on the application of the per incuriam rule is of great importance, since without it, certainty of law, consistency of rulings and comity of Courts would become a costly casualty. A decision or judgment can be per incuriam any provision in a statute, rule or regulation, which was not brought to the notice of the Court. A decision or judgment can also be per incuriam if it is not possible to reconcile its ratio with that of a previously pronounced judgment of a Co-equal or Larger Bench; or if the decision of a High Court is not in consonance with the views of this Court. It must immediately be clarified that the per incuriam rule is strictly and correctly applicable to the ratio decidendi and not to obiter dicta. It is often encountered in High Courts that two or more mutually irreconcilable decisions of the Supreme Court are cited at the Bar. We think that the inviolable recourse is to apply the earliest view as the succeeding ones would fall in the category of per incuriam.”

The expansion of the doctrine of per incuriam in the Indian context makes sense, for at least two reasons. The first is the proliferation of two-judge benches of the Supreme Court pronouncing on important constitutional issues, and invariably at odds with each other. Recent examples include Koushal and NALSADevidas Tuljapurkar and Aveek Sarkar, and (as I shall explain) Subramaniam Swamy (the present judgment) and R. Rajagopal. As the Supreme Court correctly notes in Bafna, “certainty of law” and “consistency of rulings” is a very important principle (one of the basic constituents of the rule of law), and given the sheer volume of cases being decided by two-judge benches, it must be applied with greater rigour.

The second reason is that at present, judgments tend to reproduce submissions of counsel at great length, including cases cited by counsel. The reasoning of the judgment, however, fails to engage with those judgments in any meaningful way, apart from – once again – reciting them while describing the law on the point. A good example is Rajbala vs State of Haryana, where the Justice Chelameswar held that the arbitrariness doctrine under Article 14 could not be used to strike down legislation. This was contrary to the binding decision in Mardia Chemicals. That case was not considered while arriving at the above conclusion, but is nonetheless found in the judgment, in a footnote while reproducing counsel’s submissions. A strict application of per incuriam in such a situation would defeat the purpose of the doctrine itself, since what it stipulates is that a Court is bound to consider precedent (although, having once considered it, it can choose to read it in a way that is obviously incorrect – in such a situation, the latter decision will then become binding law.

It is my submission that Subramaniam Swamy vs Union of India is per incuriam on both the narrow and the broad conceptions of the doctrine. It is per incuriam because of its failure to consider the ratio of R. Rajagopal vs State of Tamil Nadu, that is, the finding that a regime of no-fault liability in defamation causes a chilling effect upon free speech.

Subramaniam Swamy vs Union of India mentions Rajagopal at exactly one point in the 268-page long judgment: at page 5 of the judgment (paragraph 2), where it cites the passage in Rajagopal stating that:

“In all this discussion, we may clarify, we have not gone into the impact of Article 19(1)(a) read with clause (2) thereof on Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code. That may have to await a proper case.”

Let us now come to Subramaniam Swamy’s consideration of the chilling effect. The Court holds:

“Once we have held that reputation of an individual is a basic element of Article 21 of the Constitution and balancing of fundamental rights is a constitutional necessity and further the legislature in its wisdom has kept the penal provision alive, it is extremely difficult to subscribe to the view that criminal defamation has a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression.”

Previously, I have argued that this paragraph makes some fundamental conceptual errors in its understanding of what the chilling effect is. Be that as it may, let us now consider R. Rajagopal’s Case

In R. Rajagopal’s Case, the Supreme Court modified the common law of civil defamation. It replaced the no-fault liability standard with either a New York Times v Sullivan standard of actual malice, or the English standard of reasonable publication (I say “either” because the judgment seemingly adopts both tests, which are actually very different). Crucially, it cited New York Times v Sullivan, and cited that exact paragraph where Sullivan held that no-fault liability causes a chilling effect upon free speech. It then made the following finding:

“… in the case of public officials, it is obvious, right to privacy, or for that matter, the remedy of action for damages is simply not available with respect to their acts and conduct relevant to the discharge of their official duties. This is so even where the publication is based upon facts and statements which are not true, unless the official establishes that the publication was made (by the defendant) with reckless disregard for truth. In such a case, it would be enough for the defendant (member of the press or media) to prove that he acted after a reasonable verification of the facts; it is not necessary for him to prove that what he has written is true.”

In other words, Rajagopal holds that in case of statements defaming public officials, the standard is the (Sullivan) standard of reckless disregard for the truth. It’s reason for doing so is the chilling effect caused by a no-fault liability standard (and in fact, that can be the only reason for doing so, since that was at the heart of Sullivan). Consequently, the proposition that a no-fault liability standard causes a chilling effect in case of defamation is part of the ratio decidendi of Rajagopal. As recently as 2015, in M/s Fibre Boards v CIT, the Supreme Court clarified that the ratio of a case includes the reasons that form part of its conclusion (paragraph 27)

It may be argued at this stage that Rajagopal was a civil defamation case, and the question of what to do about criminal defamation was left open by that bench. That is true; however, that a no-fault liability provision for defamation causes a chilling effect upon speech is agnostic about whether the liability might take civil or criminal form. The reasoning given in Sullivan was that an individual who will be required to take the stand and prove the truth of his statement in order to avoid liability, will tend to self-censor, and “steer clear of the unlawful zone”, thus impoverishing public discourse. In other words, the chilling effect is caused by the legal standard (no-fault liability), and not by the nature of the liability (chilling effect).

For this reason, Subramaniam Swamy’s finding that criminal defamation’s no fault liability does not chill speech is reached in ignorance of Rajagopal, and is therefore per incuriam.

Even if this argument fails – i.e., even if one believes that since Rajagopal was about civil defamation, it’s ratio cannot be extended to cover cases of criminal defamation – Subramaniam Swamy remains per incuriam under the broader definition of Sundeep Kumar Bafna. This is a much simpler case to prove. After Swamy, the legal standard for imposing criminal liability (no-fault) is lower than civil liability (Sullivan) in case of public officials. This overturns the legal system on its head, and leads to an illogical position as long as both decisions continue to hold the field. In terms of Bafna, it is impossible to “reconcile the ratio” of Subramaniam Swamy with R. Rajagopal.

I submit, therefore, that Subramaniam Swamy vs Union of India is per incuriam, and therefore a judgment that has no legal validity and does not serve as precedent for future cases. It is to be hoped that on an appropriate occasion, a future bench of the Supreme Court will consider these arguments while deciding whether or not to refer another constitutional challenge to criminal defamation for resolution by a bench of five judges (as Article 145 of the Constitution requires).

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Judicial censorship: A dangerous, emerging trend

Last week, the Indian Express reported that in proceedings before the Supreme Court, the Additional Solicitor General was asked by the bench about how the State planned to regulate “explicit” pictures on condom packets. The case seems to have arisen out of a 2008 order of the Madras High Court (which, unfortunately, does not seem to have been reported, and is not available on the High Court’s website). The Madras High Court had effectively imposed prior restraint upon condom manufacturers by requiring them to have their packets cleared by the Advertising Standards Council of India – which happens to be a private body. The Order had been stayed on appeal, and the Court is now in the process of hearing the appeal on merits. The Madras High Court – this time, through its Madurai bench – was in the news for the second time in the same week, when Justice R. Mahadevan acted upon a PIL and ordered that the study of the Tamil epic “Thirukkural” be made compulsory in schools (this judgment is available on the website, as WP (MD) No. 11999 of 2015).

The thought of the Learned ASG spending the better part of the next six weeks poring over condom packets might justifiably evoke some mirth; and we might ruefully sigh with all those school-going students in Tamil Nadu who now have to sit and swot more than a thousand couplets under compulsion. However, these cases also exemplify an evolving trend in Indian free speech jurisprudence which, if it crystallises, could lead us into a new and dangerous era of speech contraction, and one that is wholly uncontemplated by the Constitution.

Attentive readers are no doubt aware that the Indian judiciary has always had an ambivalent relationship with free speech. Rarely have the courts struck down speech-restricting laws on the touchstone of Article 19(1)(a), choosing instead to uphold them, often on an expansive interpretation of the categories of Article 19(2). The Courts have upheld prior restraint under the Cinematograph Act, government notifications that amount to compelled speech, and law of sedition, etc. However, they have done so while exercising their functions as constitutional courts – i.e., adjudicating upon the constitutional validity of laws or executive acts that are challenged before them. This is a role that is envisaged by the constitutional text. Article 19(2) clearly states that:

“(2) Nothing in sub clause (a) of clause ( 1 ) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

Evidently, therefore, a pre-requisite for imposing restrictions upon speech is the existence of a law, which conforms to the categories laid out under Article 19(2). Whether or not a particular law does so is a matter for the courts.

As long as the courts stick to their role, their impact upon the freedom of speech is accordingly limited to deciding upon the validity of existing laws. For that, a law needs to exist in the first place, and secondly, even if upheld, options are not foreclosed: there is always the possibility of repeal through the parliamentary process (in fact, the Press Emergency Powers Act, and the TADA, both of which were upheld by the Supreme Court, were ultimately repealed or allowed to lapse).

The condom case and the Thirukurral case, however, are beats of a very different sort, because they involve the Court imposing restrictions upon free speech in the absence of any existing law, and acting upon a public interest litigation. Nor are they isolated cases. In recent years, a trend has begun to emerge, which may broadly be divided into two kinds of judicial action:

A. The Use of Article 21 as a Sword

The expansion of Article 21’s guarantee of the right to life and personal liberty, in the early years of the PIL era, is now legendary. When it began, the purpose of this reading of Article 21 was to move beyond the perceived limitations imposed by a textual interpretation of the clause, and bring in socio-economic rights into Part III. Critiques of this judicial movement have focused upon how this expansion reached absurd levels, effectively denuding Article 21 of meaning or force. This is undeniable; nonetheless, as long as Article 21 was only used as a shield for individuals against state action, the worst that could happen would be that it would become a rather ineffective shield.

It is quite inevitable, however, that as Article 21 would grow larger and larger, it would inevitably begin to come into conflict with other rights under Part III. The first serious conflict of this sort occurred with R. Rajagopal’s Case in 1994, when privacy and free speech clashed. The clash was sharpened in a series of cases in the late 90s and early 2000s, with the Court framing the issue as one involving a balance between an individual’s Article 19(1)(a) right of speech and expression, and another individual’s Article 21 right to privacy. There is nothing specifically peculiar about this particular clash: the Supreme Court’s interstitial reading of privacy as an aspect of Article 21 is among the more defensible aspects of its 21 jurisprudence, and the clash between free speech and privacy has occupied constitutional courts all over the world.

In 2005, however, in a rather bizarre judgment called In Re Noise Pollution, the Supreme Court, while passing directions on a public interest litigation pertaining to the use of firecrackers, loudspeakers etc. had this to say:

“Those who make noise often take shelter behind Article 19(1)A pleading freedom of speech and right to expression. Undoubtedly, the freedom of speech and right to expression are fundamental rights but the rights are not absolute. Nobody can claim a fundamental right to create noise by amplifying the sound of his speech with the help of loudspeakers. While one has a right to speech, others have a right to listen or decline to listen. Nobody can be compelled to listen and nobody can claim that he has a right to make his voice trespass into the ears or mind of others. Nobody can indulge into aural aggression. If anyone increases his volume of speech and that too with the assistance of artificial devices so as to compulsorily expose unwilling persons to hear a noise raised to unpleasant or obnoxious levels then the person speaking is violating the right of others to a peaceful, comfortable and pollution-free life guaranteed by Article 21. Article 19(1)A cannot be pressed into service for defeating the fundamental right guaranteed by Article.”

To start with, there was absolutely no need for Article 21 to be brought into the picture. Free speech jurisprudence has a well-known category called “time, place and manner” restrictions, under which regulation that do not affect the content of speech, but merely how and in what manner the right to speech is to be exercised, are not deemed to infringe the freedom of expression. The underlying logic is obvious, and does not need explanation. Instead of relying upon this argument, however, the Court decided to use a hugely expanded Article 21 as a sword, and cited the right to a “peaceful, comfortable and pollution-free life” under Article 21 to defeat the freedom of speech under Article 19(1)(a). The problem, of course, is that the phrase “peaceful, comfortable and pollution-free life” is blissfully vague.

This vagueness in the usage of the expanded Article 21 also allowed the Meghalaya High Court, in May last year, to unilaterally gag the local media from reporting on bandhs. The Court observed:

“Hence, we direct that the statements of HNLC or any organization which may disturb the even tempo of day-to-day public life and cause violation of Fundamental rights of citizens in particular under Article 19 and 21 of the Constitution.” 

The perils of using Article 21 to restrict other rights under Part III are exemplified in the ongoing “porn ban litigation” before the Supreme Court (Kamlesh Vaswani vs Union of India), where an expansive reading of Article 21 is cited as one of the reasons for the Court to act upon pornographic websites, in the absence of any law. Notice, however, that unlike privacy, which remains a relatively narrowly defined right, the Kamlesh Vaswani petition draws upon a whole host of constitutional provisions, including the non-enforceable Directive Principles, to justify restrictions upon free speech (the two issues are not isolated – the expansion of Article 21 has been accompanied by increasing recourse to the DPSPs and the “fundamental duties” chapter).

And it is the Madras High Court’s Thirukkural judgment, however, that this form of reasoning reaches its absurd limits. In a series of logical leaps that would ensure a flunking grade in a first-year Legal Methods exam, Justice Mahadevan derives a right to live in an “ordered society”  from the Constitution, takes note of increasing social and cultural degradation, cites extensively from the Thirukkural, and ends by noting that “moral values are more important that other values. Once, the moral values are lost, it is only a matter of time before the person falls, despite possessing all other qualities, which may earn in name, fame, power and money. If Thirukkual is taught with all its avenues and dimensions elborately, the students would be equipped with all the facets of life, the probable problems and the solutions. The couplets about friendship, hard work, good character, patience, tolerance and confidence will guide them through, even the most difficult of times. Thirukkural will give them the inner strength to withstand any storm. Therefore, this Court commends that appropriate action must be taken by the government through the committee which decides the syllabus, considering the noble objective and the demanding situation and finalise the syllabus for the next academic year by including 108 Chapters/ Adhigarams of Thirukkural (Arathupal and Porutpal) in the curriculum of students between VI Standard to XII Standard, keeping in mind that the purpose of education must be to build a nation with moral values.” The Constitution, in other words, has become a charter for compelled speech.

B. Judicial Restrictions under Article 19(2)

The condoms case is an instance of a different kind of judicial censorship: here, the judiciary imposes speech restrictions under Article 19(2) (in this case, the obscenity clause). While obscenity is undoubtedly a ground to restrict speech under Article 19(2), the text of that clause makes it abundantly clear that what is contemplated is a law made by the State, and not (what is colloquially called) “judge made law”. If the State chooses not to restrict “obscene” picture on condom packets, then it is not for the Court to substitute itself in the State’s place, and impose the restrictions through judicial fiat.

What is particularly disturbing is that each of these cases – the condoms case, the Thirukkural imposition, In Re Noise Pollution, and Kamlesh Vaswani – are PILs. In most jurisdictions, individuals approach the Court for relief against State-imposed restrictions on free speech. The PIL, however, seems to be turning us into a jurisdiction where individuals can impose the Court to impose restrictions on speech! Quite apart from the fact that this was never the intention of the PIL, and never the intention of the Constitution, the prospect of the judiciary becoming a forum where people can take PILs aimed at contracting the individual rights under Part III, is a truly frightening one.

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