Notes From a Foreign Field: The Ugandan Constitutional Court on the Right to Protest [Guest Post]

[This is a Guest Post by Karan Gupta.]


In a society where policy brutality and clamp down on free speech is common, the Constitutional Court of Uganda recently affirmed a few commonsensical principles on free speech, the right to assemble and public order. On 26 March 2020, the Constitutional Court of Uganda declared Section 8 of the Public Order Management Act 2013 (POMA) unconstitutional (4-1 majority). Section 8, inter alia, conferred upon the Inspector General of Police (IGP), or any officer authorized by them, vast discretionary powers to: (i) Withhold permission to hold a public meeting or stop a public meeting where it is “held contrary to the Act”; (ii) Use force to disperse public meetings; and (iii) Impose criminal liability on organizers and participants of such public meeting. The Act defines a ‘public meeting’, empowers the IGP to regulate their conduct (S. 3), and requires every ‘organizer’ to give prior notice (at least three days prior and no more than fifteen days prior) of the proposed public meeting with details specified therein (S. 5). An unplanned, unscheduled and unintended public meeting is exempt (S. 7).

I explore, in seriatim, the constitutionally flawed approach, the progressive observations of the constitutional court, missed opportunities, and lessons for India.

 Preliminary Point: Constitution adjudication – in personam?

In a previous case, Muwanga Kivumbi v Attorney General, the Constitution Court had declared Section 32(2) of the Police Act 2006, which empowered the officer in charge of the police to pass an anticipatory order prohibiting the convening of an assembly/procession if there were “reasonable grounds for believing” that there would be a breach of peace, unconstitutional. The Court had held that the subjective and anticipatory power was prohibitory in nature (as compared to a regulatory power, which is permissible) and ultra vires Arts. 20(1) (Fundamental Rights are inherent and not granted by the state) and 29(1)(d) (Freedom of assembly and demonstration).

The challenge in HRNU lay in narrow confines. Art. 92 of the Constitution restricts the Parliament from passing a law which “alters” a decision of the Court “as between the parties to the decision or judgment”, thus barring the alteration of rights that have accrued to parties to a case vis-à-vis each other (in personam). The petitioners in HRNU highlighted that one petitioner in Muwanga was also a petitioner before the Court in HRNU, and that Section 8 of the POMA was para materia to Section 32(2) of the Police Act. Consequently, by enacting Section 8, the legislature had unconstitutionally attempted to alter the decision in Muwanga [p. 7]. Despite a broad challenge to the POMA on a myriad of constitutional provisions, the petitioners restricted their oral arguments to only Art. 92 and Section 8.

Justice Cheborion evaded the limited ambit of Art. 92 and the nuanced differences between the two provisions (Sections 32(2) and 8)) and held that Art. 92 also applies to decisions made in public interest, and not only in relation to parties to a previous litigation. This approach was adopted by two other judges [p. 42, 50, 69] and raises two concerns: First, this militates against the plain and ordinary meaning of Art. 92 and renders nugatory the latter part restricting its application to parties in a litigation. The decision in Muwanga (as well as the present case) concerned a constitutional matter on the ambit of constitutionally permissible police powers to control assemblies, demonstrations and peaceful protests. Such matters are, by their very nature, in rem proceedings – a declaration of invalidity does not operate only between parties, but to everyone. Art. 92 which seeks to protect rights that accrue to parties from a litigation (from contract law or property law for example), has no applicability in such cases. Furthermore, the legislature did not seek to alter the decision in Muwanga, but enact a new provision different from Section 32(2) of the Police Act.

Second, the Ugandan Parliament may alter the basis of decision in Muwanga by amending the provisions on which the decision turned [i.e. Arts. 20(1) and 29(1)(d)]. However, the Court held that the decision in Muwanga could only be altered, inter alia, by amending Art. 92 [p. 19]. This flows from its erroneous reading and application of Art. 92. The right approach is for the Court to, absent any constitutional amendment, employ in its assessment the broad constitutional principles laid down in Muwanga and other relevant constitutional provisions. However, the court restricted its assessment to whether Section 8 is an “incarnation” of Section 32(2) [p. 18]. Only two judges avoided this pitfall, though without adequate explanation [p. 54, 75], analyzed the entire Act and declared it unconstitutional [p. 61].

 Public interest, public order and free speech

Art. 29(1) guarantees to every person the freedom of speech and expression, assembly and demonstration, and association. While Art. 79(1) empowers the Parliament to enact laws for the maintenance of order, both provisions are silent on the permissible restrictions on fundamental rights. The answer is found in Art. 43 which stipulates that “no person shall prejudice the fundamental or other human rights and freedoms of others or the public interest”. According to Ugandan precedent, there is no justification to restrict or abrogate a fundamental right where the its exercise comports with the restrictions in Art. 43. Art. 43(2) clarifies that the term ‘public interest’ shall not permit any limitation “beyond what is acceptable and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society”.

The scheme of fundamental rights chapter is significant for two reasons: First, barring the general restrictions in Art. 43 and a few other provisions which specify restrictions therein, there are no specified grounds to restrict fundamental rights as compared to other Constitutions; Second, under Art. 43, the principles of a free and democratic society are accorded primacy and any restriction must comport with this requirement. While the Parliament may legislate on the maintenance of public order (which Muwanga held is in public interest), any restriction on the freedom under Art. 29 must be demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society.

Viewed in the above context, the Court (three or more judges) made three significant observations:

 First, on the ambit and hierarchy of free speech protection, the Court held that speech, public processions and protests, irrespective of their nature, are entitled to equal protection (i.e. social, religious, political, economic, and so on) [p. 20, 57]. This is distinct from the preferred position doctrine which accords higher protection for political speech in American constitutional jurisprudence. The context which informed this analysis is granting equal protection to political assemblies and speech which are a common target of the political establishment in Uganda;

Second, on public order, the Court held that where a protest or public gathering is peaceful, “it does not matter that it may disruptive or even inconveniencing”. [p. 21] This is significant as any society committed to the freedom of speech and assembly recognizes that some disruption is no ground to restrict or deny the right. Beyond toleration, the celebration and protection of speech and assembly is linked to justice, equal concern and mutual respect of every individual. Recall here the judgment of the Madras High Court which affirmed that “public streets are the natural places for expression of opinions” (analyzed here); and

Third, the Court held that Section 8, in so far as it authorizes the police to prevent a public meeting, empowers them to impose a blanket ban and require prior permission for every gathering [p. 23, 25]. The Court held that this violates Arts. 29 and 43 and the state failed to demonstrate that the power conferred by Section 8 is both regulatory and acceptable and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society. This is significant for three reasons:

  • The burden of proof to justify the restriction on a constitutionally guaranteed right falls on the state. However, by vesting in the police the vast discretion to prohibit or prevent the freedom of speech and expression, this burden stands reversed. Every individual is then required to justify to the police why the exercise of their constitutional right will not or does not impair public order or contravene any provision of POMA. Justice Elizabet rightly noted that there is a presumption that every assembly and exercise of free speech is peaceful [ 61] and a mere apprehension of violence does not constitute a sufficient basis to prevent or prohibit an assembly, gathering or protest;
  • The Court highlighted that no conditions were laid down for the exercise of the power [ 98], vesting in the police vast discretion to determine which public meetings may be prevented or forced to disperse. As noted by the American Supreme Court in Grayned v Rockford, such unbridled discretion is accompanied by the “attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application.” Where the police are an instrumentality of the state, the possibility of partisan politics to curb dissent and anti-establishment sentiments cannot be discounted. This is recognized by two judges in HRNU who documented the arbitrary exercise of power by the police to protect government interest and impose popular morality [p. 22, 100]; and
  • Flowing from above, the unregulated blanket discretion to prohibit assemblies does not comport with the requirements of the ‘constitutional yardstick’ that every restriction on a fundamental right must be necessary and The police must justify, in each specific instance, why the prohibition of an assembly is the least restrictive measure and proportionate to the possible harm sought to be prevented (this post discusses context-specificity and proportionality in the context of the internet shut-down judgment in Kashmir). The judgment, despite lacking in the explicit use of this yardstick, comports with this requirement.

Maintaining public order

How then must the State maintain public order? Justice Cheborian (with whom three other judges agree) answered this. He held that where the police anticipate a breach of peace, there is a positive obligation on the state to provide protection and police deployments and not prohibit the assembly [p. 17, 60, 90]. The Court held that the duty to maintain public order “cannot be discharged by prohibiting sections of the public from exercising their constitutionally guaranteed rights to demonstrate peacefully or hold public meetings of any nature.” This is sound as it reaffirms: (i) the holding in Muwanga that the state must provide channels and structures to ensure that legitimate protest “find voice”; and (ii) the principle that the failure of the state to provide adequate security cannot be a ground to deny people the freedom of speech and assembly. Furthermore, the Court noted that the state is also empowered to act in various situations (unlawful assemblies, riots, malicious damage against public order) by the Penal Code of Uganda [p. 33,89] and may, in accordance with the law, arrest or take appropriate action against any perpetrator [p. 23, 32].

Missed opportunities

 Despite the significant observations above, the Courts missed out on two opportunities:

First, only Justice Kenneth attempted to specify which values underlie a free and democratic societyinter alia, the acceptance and accommodation of a variety of cultural, religious and political beliefs and free political debate, human dignity and freedom of speech, association and movement [p. 90]. The Court could have laid down a comprehensive base for the protection of free speech and association as an values inhering in a free and democratic society; and

Second, despite the challenge in the petitions to numerous provisions of the Act, the Court examined the validity of only Section 8 (admittedly, only this was pressed by the petitioners). Only two judges examined the deeply inherent flaws in the entire Act to conclude that it was ultra vires a myriad of constitutional provisions. In the end, these draconian provisions were left standing and the Court concluded that guidelines must be framed for the exercise of powers under the Act [p. 33]

India and Section 144

Recall here that Section 144 of the Indian Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 confers wide discretionary powers upon executive magistrates to prohibit assemblies. This is regularly invoked on the basis of an apprehension that there would be a breach of peace or public order. The Constitution Court in Muwanga struck down a similar provision [Section 32(2) of the Police Act] on the ground that it was prohibitory in nature and reversed the burden of proof – every individual was required under it to justify why the exercise of the right to free speech and assemble would not cause a breach of public order. The Court held that this suppresses the “powerful tool” of peaceful assemblies and protests when a free and democratic society must encourage the “greatest possible freedom of expression.” This reasoning was reiterated in HRNU to strike down the wide power to impose blanket anticipatory bans on assemblies under Section 8 of the POMA.

The power under Section 144 [similar to Section 32(2) and Section 8] allows the imposition of anticipatory bans and is prohibitory in nature This falls foul the constitutional standards espoused in Uganda. Indian courts have attempted instead to narrow the discretion conferred by the provision. The judgment of the Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin (internet shutdown in Kashmir) recently affirmed that a valid exercise of power under Section 144 is premised on: (i) the existence of objective material facts which form the basis of the opinion formed by the Magistrate; (ii) its general invocation being confined to a specific area and issue; (iii) the existence of a demonstrably urgent situation; (iv) such measure being the least restrictive course of action; and (v) compliance with proportionality standard.

Despite these restrictions, the burden of proof continues to rest on individuals as magistrates are empowered to impose anticipatory orders prohibiting any assembly. Even where these orders are challenged before courts, the preliminary burden falls on the individual (as a petitioner) to prove that the issuance of the order violated their fundamental right. This was most evident in December 2019 where when faced with the legitimate expression of dissent against the Citizenship Amendment Act, numerous orders under Section 144 were imposed across the country without any well-founded apprehension of violence, citing inconvenience.

Conclusion

Despite its failings, the judgment in HRNU held that there is “absolutely no legal authority” to stop peaceful expression on the basis of an alleged breach of peace [p. 22] and builds on Muwanga to add to the growing jurisprudence that restrictions on the right to free speech and assembly are exceptions which the state is required to justify in every case prior to its imposition, reaffirming a commitment to a culture of justification, not authority. With this, it also provides guidance to India in the exercise of the power under Section 144. While Section 144 remains operative, one can only hope that the government of the day responds proactively to the protection of the right to free speech and assembly in scrutinizing more closely the impositions of these orders in the first place.

Defining the Political: The Supreme Court’s FCRA Judgment

[Editor’s Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]


The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act – as the name suggests – regulates the circumstances under which individuals or bodies can accept funding from foreign sources. Section 3(1)(f) of the Act prohibits any “organisation of a political nature” from accepting foreign funds. The power to specify an organisation as a “political organisation” flows from Sections 5(1) and 48; the Central Government, having regard to the “activities”, “ideology”, or “association … with the activities of any political party” can specify that an organisation is of a “political nature.” To further concretise this, the FCRA Rules of 2011 set out a number of guidelines. According to Rule 3 of the 2011 Rules, organisations with “avowed political objectives” in their MoA or bye-laws, Trade Unions promoting “political goals”, action groups with objectives of a “political nature”, organisations aiming to advance “political interests”, and organisations using “common methods of political action … in support of public causes”, can all be declared organisations of a “political nature” under Section 5 of the parent Act.

This composite scheme was challenged in Indian Social Action Forum v Union of IndiaIn a brief judgment, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the Act and the Rules, but “read down” the last clause of Rule 3 – i.e., 3(1)(f) (“… common methods of political action … in support of public causes”) – to “active politics” or “party politics.” While the narrow reading of these excessively broad provisions is no doubt a good thing, nonetheless, in this post, I will flag three issues with the reasoning of the Court.

A. What is the “Political”

In paragraph 18 of the judgment, the Court notes that “preventing foreign contribution into the political arena is the object sought to be achieved by the Act. Prevention of foreign contributions routed through voluntary organisations which are not connected to party politics is the reason behind introduction of Section 3 (1) (f) and Section 5 of the Act.” Immediately after that, the Court goes on to note that “as the intention of the legislature is to prohibit foreign funds in active politics, an Association with avowed political objectives (i.e. to play a role in active politics or party politics) cannot be permitted access to foreign funds.”

Thus, the Court limits the scope of the use of the word “politics” across the Rules (and not just in Section 3(1)(f)) to “party politics” or “active politics.” Unfortunately, however, the Court fails entirely to define what “active politics” mean (especially as distinguished from “party politics”). What one can glean from the judgment – and especially the Court’s reference to “party politics” in its discussion of the legislative intent, and subsequently – in paragraph 21, the reference to “administration” – is that the purpose of the FCRA is to prevent foreign interference in electoral politics, so that the governance of the country is not affected by foreign interests. In this sense, “active politics” is probably best read alongside “party politics”, and – more broadly – as a prohibition upon organisations that seeks funds for electoral purposes (whether through party politics or otherwise).

If this is the meaning of “active politics”, however, then it should have been clarified. This is especially true because the word “political” is capable of boundlessly wide meaning. Indeed, as feminist thought has shown us over the years, the history of many struggles and movements is the history of attempts to shift the line between that which is “political” (and therefore subject to democratic norms, and ideas of liberty and equality), and that which is “private”. The core problem with the FCRA is the manner in which the word “political” is used throughout the statute and the Rules, without any indication of the work that it is meant to be doing. While “party politics” is at least an identifiable and specific narrowing down of the word, “active politics” has the potential to only multiply the confusion (unless, potentially, it is read in the manner suggested above).

B. Vagueness, Over-Breadth, and Abuse

This reluctance to be specific affects the Court’s judgment throughout, and leads to a serious misstep in paragraph 19, when it is addressing Rule 3(v) (“organisations … addressing political interests.” The Court holds:

We are in agreement that the words ‘political interests’ are vague and are susceptible to misuse. However, possible abuse of power is not a ground to declare a provision unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, this is a basic conceptual error that turns the doctrines of vagueness and over-breadth on their head. When a statute or a rule is attacked on the grounds of “over-breadth” or “vagueness”, the argument is not that it should be struck down because there is a “possible abuse of power.” The argument is that the language of the statute or rule is either broad enough or vague enough so as to encompass both constitutional and unconstitutional application within the terms of that language. The problem is not, therefore, the unconstitutional abuse of the law, but its unconstitutional use. As the Supreme Court of the United States noted in Grayned v Rockford, the judgment that first articulated the vagueness standard with clarity:

Vague laws offend several important values. First, because we assume that man is free to steer between lawful and unlawful conduct, we insist that laws give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly. Vague laws may trap the innocent by not providing fair warning. Second, if arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is to be prevented, laws must provide explicit standards for those who apply them. A vague law impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application. Third, but related, where a vague statute “abut[s] upon sensitive areas of basic First Amendment freedoms,” it “operates to inhibit the exercise of [those] freedoms.” Uncertain meanings inevitably lead citizens to “‘steer far wider of the unlawful zone’ . . . than if the boundaries of the forbidden areas were clearly marked.”

 

It should therefore be clear that once there is a judicial finding of vagueness of over-breadth, it is that finding itself that provides the reasons for unconstitutionality. The point is, as Grayned points out, that a vague or over-broad statute provides plausible legislative cover for unconstitutional State action. Or, in the words of Chintaman Rao v State of MP, a judgment that this bench does not cite: “so long as the possibility of [a statute] being applied for purposes not sanctioned by the Constitution cannot be ruled out, it must be held to be wholly void.”

C. Reading Down

A final, related point: the Court’s chosen strategy in this case (as indicated above) is to “read down” the word “politics” wherever it is found in the statute and the Rules to “party politics” or “active politics.” I have argued above that the reading down method was inapplicable in this case, as a matter of law. There is, however, a more pragmatic point that needs to be made. The strategy of “reading down” works in a situation where – after the reading down – there are mechanisms to swiftly correct the abuse of law if and when the government continues acting in the same old way, and does not follow the Court’s interpretation of the statute. As we have repeatedly seen, however – and most recently, in the case of sedition – Supreme Court judgments that “read down” legal provisions (and that, effectively, create a gap between what the text appears to mean and what the Supreme Court says it means) that are otherwise clearly unconstitutional – very quickly turn into dead letters. Without the existence of some mechanism to ensure that the “reading down” is actually effective, judgments such as these appear to be bringing the government to account, but their net impact is negligible in terms of enforcement. That is a pragmatic reality that appellate Courts should be taking into account when they fashion remedies in cases of this kind.

Notes from a Foreign Field: The Hong Kong High Court’s Judgment on the Right to Protest (with Face Masks)

Earlier this morning, the High Court of Hong Kong handed down an important judgment on the “balance” between personal liberty and national security. Readers will be aware that for the last few months, there have been mass public protests in Hong Kong. In response, the Hong Kong government passed the Prohibition on Face Covering Regulation [“PFCR”] which, as the name suggests, prohibited protesters in public spaces from wearing face masks to hide their identities. The PFCR was passed under the authority of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO), a colonial-era law that allowed sweeping powers to the Executive in an “Emergency” or during times of “public danger.”

The PFCR was passed on 4th October. It was promptly challenged (along with the ERO). The High Court heard arguments at the end of October, and handed down its judgment today. The Court struck down the ERO to the extent of its application during times of “public danger”, while leaving open the question of whether it was valid for “Emergencies.” The Court went on to hold that the PFCR was an unconstitutional and disproportionate violation of the freedom of expression of the citizens of Hong Kong.

In this post, I will discuss both holdings. The striking thing about this judgment is that despite conceding a high margin of discretion to the Executive, and despite accepting the Executive justification of maintaining law and order, the Court still found that the indiscriminate and non-targeted nature of the measure, which failed to distinguish between violent protesters and ordinary citizens, was disproportionate. As we shall see, this is by no means the judgment of an activist Court, which placed the claims of personal liberty beyond all question. On the contrary, this was a judgment by a cautious and deferential Court, which still found the ERO and the PFCR to violate Hong Kong’s Basic Law (the Constitution). And at the heart of its judgment, as I shall show, was a very simple logic: Constitutions allow the government to declare states of Emergency, and suspend certain civil rights. If, however, the government has elected not to declare an Emergency, it is not for the Court to presume their exists one. In terms of law and constitutionalism, there is no halfway house between Emergency and normalcy, where – in the absence of an Emergency proclamation – the Court nonetheless adopts a hands-off approach towards civil rights violations. Rather, if there is no Emergency, then the judicial approach towards civil rights violations must be one that applies constitutional principles with their full rigour.

The ERO

The ERO was a 1922 law, passed by the colonial British regime. Effectively, it authorised the Chief Executive in Council [“CEIC”, or “Executive”] to make “regulations” in times of Emergencies or public danger. These regulations were extremely wide in scope, including powers of censorship, seizure of property, amendment of laws, trial and punishment, and so on.

The High Court struck down the ERO on seven substantive grounds. Under Hong Kong’s basic law, it found that the Legislative Council [“LegCo”] was the primary legislative organ. The CEIC’s powers were limited to accepting or vetoing bills, and passing subordinate legislation. This is, of course, a familiar arrangement in parliamentary democracies. The Court then made the familiar point that “this constitutional scheme does not permit the LegCo to grant and the CEIC (or, for that matter, any other body) to receive and be vested with what is essentially the LegCo’s own constitutional power and function as the legislature of the Hong Kong SAR to enact, amend or repeal laws, except for an authorisation of subordinate legislation.” (paragraph 52)

This, of course, is the “excessive delegation” test known to students of constitutional and administrative law everywhere. Applying this test, the Court found that the “ERO confers general legislative powers on the CEIC.” (paragraph 55) This was because:

… the ERO is not a statute that legislates on a subject matter in principle leaving another body to devise the detailed legal norms that elaborate or put flesh on the broad matters laid down in the primary legislation. The long title of the ERO specifies that its object is to confer on the CEIC power to make regulations on occasions of emergency or public danger. But it gives no shape or direction of what the regulations that may be made are to be about. For example, the PFCR was enacted under the ERO not to work out and fill in the details for certain broad norms established by primary legislation, but as the very first piece of legislation in Hong Kong that has anything to do about face covering. This is fundamentally different from one’s ordinary conception of subordinate legislation. (paragraph 56)

Next, the Court found that the scope of the power delegated to the CEIC was extremely broad – to make “any regulations whatsoever” that it considered to be in the public interest. Thirdly, the powers could be invoked “on any occasion” when the CEIC was satisfied that there existed an emergency or public danger – neither of which were defined in the statute. In other words, such wide power was accorded to the Executive, that it was virtually unconfined – effectively (as the Court noted) it could never be argued that the Executive was going beyond the authority conferred by the  Legislature, as the authority itself had no boundaries. Not only that, but the ERO actually authorised the CEIC to amend existing legislation – i.e., it conferred – in so many terms – legislative power upon the executive (the Court’s fourth point). Furthermore, the powers of punishment conferred upon the Executive went beyond what was authorised in primary legislation (fifth); and there was no time limit upon the “validity and force of the regulations made under the ERO, nor any mechanism for constant review” (paragraph 68) (sixth).The power of “negative vetting” was held not to be a substantial check on the executive (seventh).

Drawing upon insights from comparative law, the High Court therefore concluded that:

“…the ERO, once invoked, seems to us to create in Hong Kong a separate source of laws that are primary legislation in all but name, but which are not made by the legislature in accordance with legal procedures (Art 73(1)) or reported to NPCSC (Art 17), and are not subjected to the scrutiny concomitant with the normal legislative process. Whenever the CEIC considers an occasion falling within the ERO has arisen, the CEIC becomes a legislature.” (paragraph 80)

This was evidently unconstitutional. And in response to the government’s argument that there were times that necessitated “swift and decisive action”, the High Court made the crucial observation that “the need for an urgent response is no justification for departing from or impugning the constitutional scheme.” (paragraph 95)

The PFCR

Let us now come to the prohibition of face coverings in public spaces. The PFCR prohibited the use of “facial covering that is likely to prevent identification” while a person was at an unlawful assembly, an unauthorised assembly, or even an authorised or lawful assembly (see paragraphs 25 – 29 for an explanation of these terms in Hong Kong law). It was common cause between the parties that the PFCR restricted the freedom of speech, assembly, and privacy. It was also common cause that the constitutional validity of the restrictions was to be determined according to the proportionality standard:

“…(1) does the measure pursue a legitimate aim; (2) if so, is it rationally connected with advancing that aim; (3) whether the measure is no more than reasonably necessary for that purpose; and (4) whether a reasonable balance has been struck between the societal benefits promoted and the inroads made into the protected rights, asking in particular whether pursuit of the societal interest results in an unacceptably harsh burden on the individual.”

The government argued that the goal of the prohibition was “(i) deterrence and elimination of the emboldening effect for those who may otherwise, with the advantage of facial covering, break the law, and (ii) facilitation of law enforcement, investigation and prosecution.” (paragraph 130) The question then arose: why was the measure blanket in nature, targeting both potential law-breakers as well as legitimate public protesters? To this, the government argued – on the first count (deterrence) – that “those protesters who are not prepared to break the law may comply with the PFCR and this would generally result in lessening the support for the more radical and violent protesters”; that “masked protesters mix themselves into larger groups and instigate violence and vandalism“; that “non‑radical protesters will be less likely to be influenced by or emulate their violent peers and will think twice before emulating them when they know their identity is not concealed“; that “the PFCR can act as an effective deterrent against at least some students from wearing masks when joining a protest (lawful or unlawful), which thereby substantially reduces the chance that they will be induced to break the law.” (paragraph 133) On the second count (law enforcement), the government argued that protesters were using “black bloc” tactics (i.e., appearing in indistinguishable groups and wearing similar clothing), which made specific and targeted identification difficult. A prohibition on face covering would facilitate the police in being able to identify which of the protesters were acting unlawfully.

The government’s arguments will sound eerily familiar to those following the litigation around the communications lockdown in Kashmir. In both cases, the State’s primary justifications for blanket restrictions is (i) targeting is impossible, and (ii) the bad guys will mingle with and influence the innocent guys, and so we have to restrict everyone’s freedom. The only difference is that the Hong Kong government’s arguments before the Court at least sounded more sophisticated and plausible than the Indian government’s ham-fisted “terrorists use mobile phones” justification.

How did the Court engage with this argument? The first thing to note is that it did not deny that there existed an ongoing law and order situation in Hong Kong. In paragraph 132, it observed that:

“… there is evidence before us of the enormity of the damage and danger created by some of the protesters. In the few months leading to 4 October 2019, Hong Kong has witnessed numerous instances where certain protesters charged police cordon lines with weapons, blocked public roads and tunnels with a variety of large and heavy objects, attacked drivers who voiced complaints at such blockades, vandalised public facilities and buildings, burned public property, hurled inflammable liquid bombs at the police and at and inside Mass Transit Railway stations, damaged shopping malls, shops, banks and restaurants (with reports of looting and theft in some of the damaged shops), damaged residential quarters of the disciplined forces, crippled the operations of transport infrastructure, and harassed and attacked ordinary citizens holding different political views. These acts of violence and vandalism had increased in intensity and frequency, with the incidents on 1 October 2019 being especially serious. The more violent protesters were often all suited up and masked by facial covering such as surgical masks, balaclavas and gas masks which concealed their identity.”

Along with these facts, the Court also conceded that the government had to be given a “wide margin of discretion”, and that the necessity prong within the proportionality standard required only that the government’s action was “reasonably necessary.” Now within this framework, how did the Court apply the proportionality standard? It began by noting that “some participants in demonstrations may wish to wear facial covering for legitimate reasons, such as to avoid retribution.” (paragraph 148) Consequently, the restriction on freedom was not minor or trivial, but a serious one. By contrast:

… the effect of s 3(1)(b), (c) or (d) is to impose a near‑blanket prohibition against the wearing of facial covering by the participants, without any mechanism for a case‑by‑case evaluation or assessment of the risk of any specific gathering developing or turning into a violent one such as would make it desirable or necessary to impose the prohibition in relation to that gathering only. (paragraph 155)

Furthermore:

It is not clearly stated whether, to be caught by the prohibition, the person must be a participant in the relevant gathering, or whether it suffices for that person to be merely present at the gathering, eg a person who goes to the scene for the purpose of taking photographs, or giving first-aid to persons in need of help, or even a mere passer‑by who has stopped to observe the gathering. (paragraph 156)

This was, thus, prima facie evidence of over-breadth and disproportionality. What of the government’s argument that it was the only way to prevent violence? The Court noted in response that “the evidence before us is far from clear that the PFCR has achieved to any substantial degree the intended aims of deterrence and elimination of the emboldening effect for those who may otherwise, with the advantage of facial covering, break the law, or facilitation of law enforcement, investigation and prosecution.” (paragraph 164) In other words, under the proportionality standard, the burden was upon the government to justify its rights-infringing measures on the touchstone of necessity and proportionality, with evidence (and not in a sealed cover). And the Court was unimpressed by the government’s exhortations of public danger, noting that “even in these challenging times, and particularly in these challenging times, the court must continue to adhere to and decide cases strictly in accordance with established legal principles.” (paragraph 165) Thus:

… having regard to the reach of the impugned restrictions to perfectly lawful and peaceful public gatherings, the width of the restrictions affecting public gatherings for whatever causes, the lack of clarity as regards the application of the restrictions to persons present at the public gathering other than as participants, the breadth of the prohibition against the use of facial covering of any type and worn for whatever reasons, the absence of any mechanism for a case‑by‑case evaluation or assessment of the risk of violence or crimes such as would justify the application of the restrictions, the lack of robust evidence on the effectiveness of the measure, and lastly the importance that the law attaches to the freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, procession and demonstration, and the right to privacy, we do not consider the restrictions of rights imposed by s 3(1)(b), (c) and (d) to be proportionate to the legitimate aims sought to be achieved by the imposition of those restrictions. (paragraph 166)

Thus, except insofar as it applied to unlawful gatherings, the prohibition was struck down. The Court used similar analysis to strike down Section 5, which empowered “a police officer to stop any person in any public place who is using a facial covering and to require that person to remove it so that his or her identity may be verified, if the officer reasonably believes the facial covering is likely to prevent identification.” The Court held that its indiscriminate character (“no limitations as to circumstances or period”) violated the proportionality standard.

Conclusion

The Hong Kong High Court’s judgment is a shot in the arm for civil rights. It demonstrates that even in the time of the proverbial “clash of arms”, courts can ensure that the laws are not silent. A few salient features of the analysis stand out. First, the High Court took seriously the indiscriminate and blanket nature of the prohibition, which failed to distinguish between criminals, and those who were lawfully exercising their constitutional rights to demonstrate and protest. This was perhaps the most damning feature of the government’s measure. Secondly, the government’s efforts to justify this fell flat. In particular, given that the restriction was blanket and indiscriminate, the onus was on the government to show that there was no other way to achieve the goals of law and order – and to show this with evidence. Unsurprisingly, the government failed, because there was no evidence. And lastly, the Court thoroughly rebuffed the government’s efforts to immunise its actions by making claims about the law and order situation. The Court’s approach to this issue can be summed up in paragraph 108:

  • In times of a public emergency officially proclaimed and in accordance with the other requirements of s 5 of the HKBORO, measures may be adopted under the ERO which derogate from the Bill of Rights (even so, excepting the specified non‑derogable provisions and discrimination on the prohibited grounds). Subject to the conditions of s 5 (including that the derogations are limited to those strictly required by the exigencies of the situation), this may have the effect of temporarily suspending the relevant human rights norms.
  • In other situations, measures adopted under the ERO may not derogate from the Bill of Rights, which means that if any such measure has the effect of restricting fundamental rights, then like any other restriction in normal times, it has to satisfy the twin requirements that the restriction is prescribed by law and meets the proportionality test.

 

The important of this observation cannot be understated. What the Hong Kong government was trying to do in this case – and indeed, what the Indian government is trying to do in the Kashmir litigation – is to create a third, midway category of (what is effectively) a “permanent, undeclared Emergency.” For political reasons, the government is wary of formally declaring an Emergency and suspending civil rights. But by repeated invocations of “law and order” and “security”, it is attempting to persuade the Court to act as if the situation is one of Emergency, and thereby, adopt the “judicial hands-off” approach” that it would be compelled to do if there was an Emergency. Paragraph 108 of the Hong Kong High Court’s judgment refutes this disingenuous and dangerous argument: it makes it clear that if there is no Emergency, then the restriction on civil rights must be judicially examined as “in normal times”, and the usual doctrines of reasonableness and proportionality applied. And as we have seen, proportionality takes a particularly dim view of blanket and indiscriminate restrictions (which are in effect, if not in form, Emergency-style suspension of rights – if everyone is prohibited from exercising a certain right, then it is hardly deniable that that right has been suspended for the relevant territory altogether). Such measures, therefore, must almost always be struck down as disproportionate.

It remains to be seen whether the excellent judgment of the Hong Kong High Court will be followed elsewhere, where governments make similar arguments to deny civil rights to their citizens.

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.

 

The New Maharashtra Social Boycott Law: Key Constitutional Issues

The final version of the Maharashtra Protection of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2016 contains a few key departures from the draft bill (available here) The most important is the scope of the word “victim” under the definitional clause (S. 2(h)). The Draft Bill defines a “victim” as “any individual who has suffered or experienced physical, mental, psychological, emotional or monetary harm or harm to his property as a result of the commission of social boycott.” The Act limits the definition to “any individual who has suffered or experienced physical or monetary harm or harm to his property as a result of the commission of social boycott.” The removal of the words “mental, psychological, emotional” has the potential to severely restrict the scope of the Act. The primary harm of a boycott is dignitarian in nature – it harms by stigamatising and excluding the boycotted person, and blocking off his access to community resources. In many cases, it will be difficult to show actual “physical” or “monetary” harm, if one was to take these terms literally.

In my view, however, there is enough reason for the Courts to interpret “physical harm” broadly, so as to include dignitarian harms. This is because many of the instances of social boycott that are expressly set out under S. 3 of the Act have nothing to do with physical or monetary harms. Section 3(i), for instance, deals with obstructing an individual from practicing any social observance or custom; 3(iii) deals with social ostracism; 3(iv) talks about shunning a community member “resulting in making the life of such member miserable.”; 3(viiii), inter alia, deals with severance of social relations; 3(xi) deals with preventing the children of the community from playing together with children of specific other families; 3(xv) deals with community expulsion. It therefore seems clear to me that if “physical harm” under S. 2(h) was to be restricted to bodily harm, large sections of the Act would become redundant. Such an interpretation is to be avoided. Consequently, a broader interpretation of the term “physical harm” is to be preferred, one that includes within its scope the kind of harm that all these sub-sections are aiming at curtailing – which is, essentially, harm to dignity.

With that out of the way, let us now examine some key constitutional issues with the Act.

(i) The Relationship between the Act and the Supreme Court ruling in Sardar Syedna Saifuddin

On this blog, we have extensively discussed the judgment of the Supreme Court in Sardar Syedna Saifuddin v State of Bombay (the Dawoodi Bohra case). Recall that in that case, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court struck down the 1949 Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act. The Bombay Act defined “excommunication” as “the expulsion of a person from any community of which he is member depriving him of rights and privileges which are legally enforceable by a suit of civil nature”, and went on to add that these rights included “the right to office or property or to worship in any religious place or a right of burial or cremation.” The majority held that the Act violated right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs under Article 26(b) of the Constitution, and was not saved by Article 25(2)(b)‘s social welfare or reform exception, since it outlawed even those excommunications that were made purely on religious grounds.

Now, the Maharashtra Social Boycott Act defines a “community” as “a group, the members of which are connected together by reason of the fact that by birth, conversion or the performance of any religious rites or ceremonies, they belong to the same religion or religious creed and includes a caste, sub-caste…” The focus on “religious creed” as an addendum to “religion” (notwithstanding the absence of the word “denomination”) seems to suggest that groups like the Dawoodi Bohras will fall within the definition of “community”. Now, if that’s the case, then there are a number of provisions under Section 3 that rather clearly appear to speak to precisely those situations which, the Supreme Court held in Saifuddin, fell within the protected ambit of Article 26(b). 3(i) penalises obstructing a person from observing any religious custom; 3(ii) does the same for religious rites; 3(v) deals with preventing a person from accessing religious buildings, and 3(vi) does the same for cemetaries and burial grounds (an example that was specifically taken in Saifuddin); and 3(xv), as an omnibus clause, prohibits community expulsion (read: excommunication).

It appears, therefore, that unless one were to hold that a religious creed is not a religious denomination (and thus open the floodgates to threshold litigation over whether a particular group constitutes a creed or a denomination), a significant section of the Boycott Act is unconstitutional under the interpretation of Articles 25 and 26 advanced by the Saifuddin Court. One might argue that the problem of unconstitutionality can be got around in two ways: one, by excluding from the scope of the Act instances of boycotts that are imposed purely on religious grounds. That, however, appears to do violence to the plain language of many of Section 3’s sub-clauses, which are clearly meant to deal with religion-based community exclusion. The second is a similar move – i.e., to limit the operation of the Act to instances that may properly be characterised as a “social boycott” (as the name suggests). Here again, it is doubtful whether this interpretive move is possible, since in the scheme of the Act, the social and religious boycotts are inextricably linked (See Sections 3(i), 3(ii), 3(iii) and 3(viii).

This does not mean that I am arguing for the Act to be struck down – far from it. On this blog, I’ve argued on more than one occasion that the majority in Sardar Saifuddin is incorrect, that Chief Justice Sinha’s opinion is truer to the constitutional scheme, and that the decision should be reversed. A petition asking for just that has been pending with the Supreme Court for the last thirty years. Perhaps a challenge to the Maharashtra Anti-Boycott Act will finally compel the Court to reconsider (what I consider to be) one of its most damaging precedents.

(ii) Implications for the Freedom of Assembly, Association, and the Freedom of Speech and Expression

Clearly, the Act prima facie infringes Articles 19(1)(a), (b), and (c). It is a rather trite proposition that the freedom to associate includes the freedom not to associate. Undeniably, the Act affects the freedom not to associate – in fact, that is the point! Section 3(iv) prohibits the cutting off of social or commercial ties, 3(viii) prohibits instigating others from social, religious, professional or business relations with the boycotted member – and of course, 3(xv) prohibits expulsion. The Explanation II to Section V states that persons who participate in a meeting with a view to impose a social boycott, or who vote for imposing a social boycott, are deemed to have committed an offence. This is a prima facie infringement of Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(b).

There are two possible responses to this. One is to go down the route traveled by the Supreme Court in Venkataramana Devaru and by Chief Justice Sinha in Sardar Saifuddin: i.e., to view the law as furthering the mandate of Article 17’s prohibition of “untouchability”. Previously on this blog, I have argued that Justice Sinha was right in Saifuddin to read “untouchability” in a broad sense, and to include social ostracism and expulsion within its meaning. The issue then becomes a clash between rights under Article 19(1)(a) – (c) and Article 17.

The other response – and one that I am sympathetic to – is to read the “morality” restriction under Articles 19(2) – (4) as referring to constitutional morality. Previously on this blog, I have argued that a combined reading of Articles 15(2), 17 and 25(2) yield something that we can call the “anti-exclusion” principle: the Constitution respects the autonomy of groups and communities until the point (and no further) that their actions lead the exclusion of individuals from access to basic goods (including cultural goods) that are required to lead a dignified life. The Maharashtra Social Boycott law is based upon the anti-exclusion principle, and is therefore a reasonable restriction upon the Article 19 freedoms. I do feel, however, that a few of the sub-clauses of Section 3 will fail this test. For instance, I am not sure whether Section 3(xi) – dealing with preventing or obstructing children of the community from playing with children of specific families – will meet the constitutional threshold.

I do not think that anyone will actually challenge the Social Boycott Law. If that does happen though, it will certainly be an interesting situation!

PS. One interesting aspect is the reference in the Preamble to “fraternity” as a constitutional goal.

PPS. The history of anti-boycott legislation is a long one, of course. It goes back to the 1921 Burma Anti-Boycott Law, and was also proposed by Ambedkar to the Minority Rights Commission. Part of Ambedkar’s proposals were incorporated into the 1955 Protection of Civil Rights Act. Ambedkar discusses the anti-boycott law in Chapter 3 of What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables. 

Oral arguments in ACLU v Clapper – II: How Surveillance affects Free Speech and the Freedom of Association

(As an addendum to the previous post, this piece explains exactly how much information can be gleaned from metadata surveillance.)

Recall that we are discussing the American Union for Civil Liberties’ challenge to the NSA’s bulk surveillance program, something that is directly relevant to India, in light of our own central monitoring system (CMS), that goes much further. In the last post, we discussed the implications of bulk surveillance upon privacy. But in addition to making the privacy argument, ACLU also argued that bulk surveillance violates the freedom of association, implicit in the American First Amendment, and upheld by a long line of cases. In India, of course, that right is expressly guaranteed by the Constitution.

In order to understand ACLU’s freedom of association argument, we must first look to the 1958 American Supreme Court decision of NAACP Alabama. Recall that the deep South in the 1950s practiced large-scale and widespread de facto discrimination against coloured people. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) had opened an office in the southern state of Alabama, and had “given financial support and furnished legal assistance to Negro students seeking admission to the state university; and had supported a Negro boycott of the bus lines in Montgomery to compel the seating of passengers without regard to race.” Arguing that this was causing “irreparable injury to the property and civil rights” of the citizens of Alabama, the state imposed various requirements upon the NAACP, one of which was a requirement to disclose its membership lists. NAACP refused. The state filed a restraining order. NAACP challenged. The Court’s opinion, upholding the claims of the NAACP on behalf of its members, deserves to be quoted in full:

“Effective advocacy of both public and private points of view, particularly controversial ones, is undeniably enhanced by group association, as this Court has more than once recognized by remarking upon the close nexus between the freedoms of speech and assembly. It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the “liberty” assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech. Of course, it is immaterial whether the beliefs sought to be advanced by association pertain to political, economic, religious or cultural matters, and state action which may have the effect of curtailing the freedom to associate is subject to the closest scrutiny.”

“It is hardly a novel perception that compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy may constitute [an] effective a restraint on freedom of association… this Court has recognized the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations. When referring to the varied forms of governmental action which might interfere with freedom of assembly, it said… “a requirement that adherents of particular religious faiths or political parties wear identifying arm-bands, for example, is obviously of this nature.” Compelled disclosure of membership in an organization engaged in advocacy of particular beliefs is of the same order. Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.”

In constitutional law, NAACP’s argument is invoking a doctrine known as the “chilling effect“. Basically, the idea is that if certain pre-existing burdens – legal or otherwise – are attached to exercising certain rights in certain broadly-specified ways, then people, out of caution, fear or prudence – will simply refrain from effectively exercising those rights altogether. The classic example is – unsurprisingly – that of free speech. This (somewhat real) hypothetical ought to drive home the point: suppose there is a law that bans “offensive” speech. The government might be motivated by the lawful and legitimate interest in protecting historically ostracized communities from continuous, vituperative hate speech. Nonetheless, the word “offensive” is so inherently subjective and open to manipulation, that it will lead people – fearing prosecution – to self-censor and to stop engaging even in perfectly legal speech not contemplated by the statute.

The situation is not always as clear-cut as the one outlined above, and often needs an investigation of various social factors, combined with a fair-sized helping of judicial common sense. For instance, in Shelton v Tucker, an Arkansas law required all publicly-employed teachers to disclose the organizations which they had been part of over the previous five years. The state argued that the schools needed the information to make judgments on the competence of teachers before hiring or extending their contracts – certainly, a legitimate objective. There was nothing on the record to suggest that the information would be missed. Nonetheless, the Court held:

“Such interference with personal freedom is conspicuously accented when the teacher serves at the absolute will of those to whom the disclosure must be made — those who any year can terminate the teacher’s employment without bringing charges, without notice, without a hearing, without affording an opportunity to explain… the statute does not provide that the information it requires be kept confidential. Each school board is left free to deal with the information as it wishes. The record contains evidence to indicate that fear of public disclosure is neither theoretical nor groundless. Even if there were no disclosure to the general public, the pressure upon a teacher to avoid any ties which might displease those who control his professional destiny would be constant and heavy.”

Investigating whether or not there was a compelling state interest, the Court applied the familiar strict scrutiny test, and held:

“The statute requires a teacher to reveal the church to which he belongs, or to which he has given financial support. It requires him to disclose his political party, and every political organization to which he may have contributed over a five-year period. It requires him to list, without number, every conceivable kind of associational tie — social, professional, political, avocational, or religious. Many such relationships could have no possible bearing upon the teacher’s occupational competence or fitness… in a series of decisions, this Court has held that, even though the governmental purpose be legitimate and substantial, that purpose cannot be pursued by means that broadly stifle fundamental personal liberties when the end can be more narrowly achieved. The breadth of legislative abridgment must be viewed in the light of less drastic means for achieving the same basic purpose.”

And in Local 1814 v The Waterfront Commission, the question was whether there could be compelled disclosure of all of a labour union’s members who had authorized payroll deductions for contributions to a political action committee, for the purposes of investigating coercion. The Court of Appeals held:

“We believe that compelled disclosure of the Fund’s contributors under the circumstances of this case would give rise to a chilling effect similar to the one recognized by the Supreme Court in Shelton v. Tucker, supra. The Waterfront Commission has undeniably broad powers of control over waterfront labor. It has the responsibility of supervising the hiring and assignment of all longshoremen. The Commission has the power to cause longshoremen to lose their jobs by removing or suspending them from the longshoremen’s register… Refusal to answer questions or produce evidence in a Commission investigation may be grounds for revocation or suspension from the register… we agree with the District Court that there is a substantial danger that longshoremen will perceive a connection between contributing to the Fund and being called before the all-powerful Commission. Some chilling effect on some contributors would be inevitable.”

Each of these three cases were cited and relied on by ACLU before the District Court. The argument is now self-evident: bulk surveillance of telephony metadata, as we discussed in the previous post, over time reveals patterns of data that, in turn, reveal associational information about people. The government did not deny this – in fact, it could not deny it, considering that its entire case was based on just how effectively bulk surveillance did reveal associational patterns! The question then, was two-pronged: whether there was a chilling effect, and whether a compelling state interest justified the consequent violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of association.

The judge asked ACLU what evidence there was to demonstrate a chill (and indeed, the government, in its response, would contend that there was no evidence demonstrating that anybody had been chilled). ACLU argued that none of the cited cases had relied upon evidence demonstrating a chill – in fact, bringing forth such evidence would essentially involve proving a negative. You would have to effectively prove that someone who would have otherwise spoken to you didn’t speak to you because of the chilling effect – and how could you ever do that? This was why the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals had adopted the common sense approach – and surely, if the entire society was subjected to surveillance, that would certainly involve the unpopular, dissident (yet perfectly legal) groups that are the inevitable victims of any chilling effect. That is to say, if I know that all my associational patterns are known to the government, I might well consciously or subconsciously refrain from associating with unpopular  or dissident groups.

The government also argued that the First Amendment wasn’t implicated in this case, because it wasn’t directed at ACLU. The purpose was’t to penalize expressive activity. The judge nonetheless enquired whether a good faith investigation could – nonetheless – impair the freedom of association (the state responded that it couldn’t, in this case); and in its reply, ACLU argued that even an indirect burden on an expressive activity, or an associational activity, requires exacting scrutiny. As Alexander Abdo, counsel for ACLU, ended by observing:

Imagine that the government comes to your house each night and compels you to hand in all your call records for that day. Is that not a clear violation of the Fourth and First Amendments?”

By corollary, of course, this entire argument applies with equal force to free expression (19(1)(a)). There are, therefore, two questions that we must consider: to what extent do Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(c) embody the doctrine of the chilling effect; and what standard of scrutiny is applicable under 19(2) and 19(4). There is a substantial amount of case law on how to interpret the “reasonable restrictions in the interests of… the sovereignty and integrity of India…” limitations, and most of it points towards a general proportionality test. Once again, though, it is at least arguable that the sheer scale and extent of bulk surveillance calls for more exacting scrutiny; and in any event, even under the proportionality test, the government would need to produce at least substantial evidence to show that it cannot achieve its objectives through less intrusive surveillance.

To sum up, then: bulk surveillance implicates three crucial constitutional rights: privacy (21), expression (19(1)(a)) and association (19(1)(c)). The oral arguments in ACLU Clapper reveal the numerous complexities involved, and point the way forward towards the debate that must be had in India: what conception of privacy does our Constitution commit us to? Does bulk surveillance serve a compelling state interest? Could the same objectives be achieved by a narrower tailoring? Does bulk surveillance cause a chilling effect upon expression and association? And if it does, when and how – if ever – can it be justified?