Tag Archives: freedom of speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammar of Section 123(3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Reasonable Restrictions and the First Amendment

In The Hindustan Times, Avantika Mehta has written a perceptive review of Offend, Shock, or Disturb: Free Speech under the Indian Constitution. In particular, I found this observation interesting, and one that calls for a response:

“… when Bhatia discusses hate speech without bringing up parliamentary debates on the issue or a beloved politician’s contribution to enacting the law he finds so vile – yes, we are referring to Nehru’s introduction of the “reasonable restrictions” clause of our FOE — he does a disservice to history and to his readers. Historians have noted that the clause was brought in to muzzle the Hindu Mahasabha. The amendments were later used by the Supreme Court to uphold the law of sedition, which Bhatia extensively discusses in the book without looking into the realpolitik of the situation.”

There is considerable controversy over Nehru’s role in the constitutional history of the free speech provision. It is therefore important to clarify what Nehru was responsible for, and what he wasn’t. To start with, let us take the text of Article 19(2) as it stood at the time the Constitution was adopted:

“(2) Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law in so far as it relates to, or prevents the State from making any law relating to, libel, slander, defamation, contempt of court or any matter which offends against decency or morality or which undermines the security of, or tends to overthrow, the State.”

After the First Amendment (which was brought about in response to cases such as Romesh Thappar vs State of Madras and Brij Bhushan vs State of Delhi), the modified Article 19(2) now read:

“(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 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.”

Two points need to be made.

First, restrictions upon the freedom of speech were not introduced by Nehru via the First Amendment. Article 19(2) was part of the original Constitution. The final wording of the sub-clause was the result of intense and bitter debate in the Constituent Assembly, but – interestingly enough – Nehru was not a very active participant in that debate. The intellectual defence of a restrictions clause was provided by Ambedkar in a lengthy speech, where he cited Gitlow vs New York (American Supreme Court) for the specific proposition that free speech must be constrained in certain circumstances. Sardar Patel also provided strong support for Article 19(2) (then draft Article 13(2)), on more than one occasion. A perusal of Nehru’s speeches indicate that he was clearly in favour of the restrictions clause, but the heavy lifting – at least in the Assembly – was primarily done by Ambedkar and Patel, and certain other members such as Brajeshwar Prasad. Opposition to the restrictions clause came from two quarters: the Left (Somnath Lahiri, in particular), and the (Hindu) Right, both of whom advanced nuanced and subtle arguments calling for the restrictions clause to be scrapped altogether, or to be watered down. Unfortunately, they lost.

Secondly – and this is crucially important – the First Amendment did two different things, which need to be kept separate. First, it expanded the scope of Article 19(2) by introducing the terms “public order” and “incitement to an offence”. This was clearly done with a view to get around the decisions of the Supreme Court in Romesh Thappar and Brij Bhushan, which had struck down a ban on a left-wing journal and pre-censorship of a right-wing (RSS) journal respectively (N.B.: it wasn’t just about suppressing the Hindu Mahasabha – it was equally about suppressing communism), on the basis that the original Article 19(2) did not authorise the State to impose restrictions upon free speech in the interests of public order, but required it to discharge the higher burden of showing a threat to the security of the state. This was a regressive step, and as the mover of the Amendment, Nehru deserves to be severely criticised for it.

However, this was not all that the First Amendment did. In addition to expanding the scope of Article 19(2), it also introduced the word “reasonable” into the sub-clause. This word did not come out of a vacuum, but had a long history behind it. In a forthcoming paper on free speech in the Constituent Assembly Debates, I attempt to explain the significance of the word “reasonable”, for the framers. Consider the following excerpt:

“Distrust of the State was also the underlying motivation of another set of objections to the wording of the restrictions clause. Sardar Hukum Singh perceptively noted that the phrase “in the interest of”, placed just ahead of the substantive restrictions, would serve to reduce the Supreme Court’s area of review to a very narrow sliver. The question of whether a legislation was “in the interest” of the security of the State, for instance, would restrict the Court to merely being able to interrogate its bona fides.[1] “The proviso in article 13(3)”, he argued, “has been so worded as to remove from the Supreme Court its competence to consider and determine whether in fact there were circumstances justifying such legislation.”[2] Pandit Thakur Dass Bhargava suggested a way out: add “reasonable” before “restrictions.” This, he suggested, would ensure that “the courts shall have to go into the question and it will not be the legislature and the executive who could play with the fundamental rights of the people. It is the courts which will have the final say.”[3] In that context, Hukum Singh, in fact, took on Ambedkar on his own terms. Ambedkar’s argument that he could produce a foreign precedent for every restriction placed in draft clause 13(2), he argued, was inapposite, because in other countries, it was the judiciary’s task to balance the competing interests of liberty and social order.[4]” [Footnotes omitted]

The word ‘reasonable’, therefore, was meant to legitimise judicial review over free speech restrictions. Note that Romesh Thappar and Brij Bhushan were decided on the basis that the laws in question related to “public order”, and not to “security of the State”. Without the introduction of the word “reasonable”, this jurisprudence would have very soon hit a dead end, since the only enquiry that the Court could undertake would be whether there existed some discernible relationship between the restriction and the contents of Article 19(2). The nature of that relationship would have remained beyond judicial review.

It was the word “reasonable”, in fact, that allowed the Supreme Court to introduce a proximity requirement between speech and public disorder in Ram Manohar Lohia’s Case, and kickstarted the limited free-speech protections that we find in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence today. Without that word, the few progressive free speech decisions in our constitutional history would not have existed: there would have been no Lohia, no Arup Bhuyan, and no Shreya Singhal.

It’s possible, of course, that a more textually constrained Court would have found more creative ways to protect civil rights, and ended up developing a better and more coherent free speech jurisprudence. The history of the Court, however, suggests that this would have been a highly unlikely outcome.

In sum, therefore, it’s important to reiterate two basic points that seem to repeatedly get submerged in discussions about the Constituent Assembly and the First Parliament, in the context of free speech. First, an extensive restrictions clause existed in the original Constitution, and one that was accepted by all the major figures of the Assembly – Ambedkar, Patel, Nehru, Alladi Krishnaswamy, and so on. And secondly, the First Amendment was regressive in that it expanded the scope of 19(2), but progressive in that it also expanded the scope of judicial review (what the Court has done with its expanded powers is a different question entirely).

 

 

 

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The “Balancing” Test and Its Discontents

At the heart of the Supreme Court’s upholding of criminal defamation is the argument that the right to freedom of speech under Article 19(1)(a) must be “balanced” against the right to “reputation” under Article 21 (as I pointed out in my post about the judgment, the Court’s examination of the reasonableness of criminal defamation under Article 19(2) simply merges into its balancing test. No finding is returned with respect to the former – thus leaving balancing as the sole basis of the judgment).

The criminal defamation judgment is not the first time that the Court has resorted to “balancing” the textually guaranteed right under Article 19(1)(a) against unenumerated rights under Article 21 (R. Rajagopal and In Re Noise Pollution are two others). One problem is that the method of balancing has never been described – the “balancing” invariably leads to subordination of free speech to whatever right the Court decides to find under Article 21.

There is a deeper problem, however. The Court never justifies the balancing test in the first place. To understand why this is a problem, consider the famous American Supreme Court judgment in United States vs StevensPut simply, United States vs Stevens was about the constitutionality of a statute that prohibited the dissemination of videos depicting cruelty to animals. The State attempted to defend the statute by arguing that the “value” of such speech was far outweighed by the social interests advanced by its prohibition. Rejecting this argument by an 8 – 1 majority, the Court observed:

“As a free-floating test for First Amendment coverage, that sentence is startling and dangerous. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits. The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs. Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it. The Constitution is not a document “prescribing limits, and declaring that those limits may be passed at pleasure.””

There is little I can add to the soundness of this reasoning, except to note that this applies with even greater force to the Indian Constitution than it does to the American. Textually, the American First Amendment is a broad, freedom of expression clause that contains no restrictions. On the contrary, Article 19(2) lists out eight restrictions upon the freedom of speech that can be imposed by law. The argument that the “balancing” between free speech and various social interests has already been achieved within the constitutional text is therefore far more compelling in the Indian context. Given that the framers (and then the amenders) specifically enumerated eight restrictions upon the freedom of speech within the constitutional text strongly suggests that the process of balancing has already been undertaken in the drafting of Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(2). It is not for the Court to further “balance” the freedom of speech against interests that do not form part of Article 19(2) (and certainly not by invoking the DPSPs and Fundamental Duties!)

Three further textual points support this reasoning. The first is that Article 19(2) does not contain a “public interest” restriction (as opposed to, say, Article 19(6)). This suggests a deliberate choice on the part of the framers to reject a general balancing between the freedom of speech and those “social interests” not specifically enumerated under Article 19(2). The second point is that where the Constitutional text intends such a balancing, it specifically says so. Article 25(1)’s freedom of religion guarantee, for instance, is expressly made “subject to” the other provisions of Part III. Article 19(1)(a) is not. A purely textual analysis, therefore, precludes “balancing” Article 19(1)(a) against other provisions of the Constitution. And the third point is that in Constitutions where the balancing test is part of free speech jurisprudence, it is based on specific textual guarantees that allow the State to limit free speech in the interests of “the rights of others” (something similar to Article 25(1)). Article 19(2) contains no such limitation.

Over the last twenty years, it has become established judicial wisdom that Article 19(1)(a) is to be “balanced” against Article 21 (in its capacious, ever-proliferating avatar), and even “balanced” against Part IV, and the fundamental duties chapter. This has come to a point where, in the criminal defamation judgment, the Court hasn’t even returned a finding on Article 19(2), preferring instead to decide the case on the basis of balancing. However, the Court has never interrogated the foundation of that claim (Shreya Singhal, which implicitly holds that restrictions upon freedom of speech must meet the test of Article 19(2) is an exception, as it is an exception in many other ways). Because of the strong textual evidence against this balancing exercise, the Court must show overwhelming reason why this method is constitutionally mandated. So far, it has not done so.

(Ed. My thanks to Jawahar Raja, whose strong objections to the balancing test made me rethink my own intuitive acceptance of it)

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Two state laws (and one proposed law) with constitutional implications

Last month, Punjab passed the Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Act, which inserts a new Section 295AA into the IPC. 295AA, according to reports, prohibits “sacrilege” to the Guru Granth Sahib, and imposes life imprisonment as a punishment. I haven’t yet been able to obtain a text of the law, but if indeed the term used is “sacrilege”, it seems to me that there is a clear over-breadth problem with respect to Article 19(1)(a). It would also be interesting to see whether Section 295AA has a mens rea requirement, since that was precisely the ground on which the Supreme Court upheld Section 295A in Ramji Lal Modi’s Case – reasoning that an “intentional” insult to religious sentiments can cause public disorder, bringing the section within the scope of Article 19(2). It also seems to me that the sentence of life imprisonment is highly disproportionate, and can constitute cruel and unusual punishment, violating Article 21.

On April 11, the Maharashtra Legislative Council cleared a bill to “regulate” dance bars in the State of Maharashtra. The Hindu has an account of some of the stringent conditions imposed by the bill. Apart from the fact that the bill imposes prior restraint by subjecting all performances to the approval of the censor board, it also allegedly prohibits “vulgar” performances. Once again, this seems to be a textbook case of over-breadth under Article 19(1)(a) – quite apart from the fact that the Supreme Court itself, on more than one occasion, has specified that mere vulgarity (if it lacks a “prurient interest”) does not constitute obscenity.

Last week, Maharasthra enacted a law against social boycotts (a previous draft may be accessed here). The law prohibits social boycotts (which are defined in numerous ways, ranging from expulsion from the community, to obstructing regular business and social relations, to obstructing the performance of marriage) within communities. It is therefore applicable horizontally, and – naturally – impacts the freedom of association (which, as the Court has held, carries with it the freedom not to associate). Social boycotts – and legislative action against them – have a long history in India, as we have often discussed on this blog. Starting from school segregation in the late 19th century, to Ambedkar’s movements for water-tank and temple access in the 1920s, to the framing of the Constitution (Article 15(2)), to the Protection of Civil Rights Act, to the striking down of the Bombay excommunication law in 1962 – the history has been a bitter and contested one. Notably, the draft bill specifically prohibits excommunication, thus bringing it into potential conflict with the Dawoodi Bohra judgment. It will be interesting to see if this gets taken to the courts.

(PS. I haven’t been able to obtain the texts of any of these laws – help on this would be most welcome!)

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Guest Post: The Supreme Court on Parliamentary Privileges and Constitutional Freedoms – I

(In this Guest Post, Rahul Bajaj, a fourth-year law student at the University of Nagpur, examines a recent Supreme Court judgment – Algaapural R. Mohanraj v TN Legislative Assembly – on parliamentary privileges and constitutional freedoms. This is the first of two guest posts on the case.)

The width and amplitude of the powers of courts to test the legality of legislative proceedings against the touchstone of constitutional values and principles has always been a hotly contested issue. Indeed, there can be no gainsaying that the answer to this question has profound implications for the doctrine of separation of powers, checks and balances and parliamentary sovereignty. Against this backdrop, it would be instructive to examine a recent Supreme Court decision, penned by Justice Chelameswar, that not only throws light on the interrelationship of fundamental rights and parliamentary privileges, but also examines the scope of the court’s power to intervene in disciplinary proceedings that are governed by rules framed by every legislature for this purpose.

The facts of this case lie in a narrow compass but nonetheless merit brief recapitulation in order to set the tone for the discussion that is to follow. On 19.02.2015, some members of a political party known as the DMDK resorted to unruly conduct in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and ran towards the speaker’s podium when the speaker ordered the eviction of one of them for such conduct. Consequently, the speaker suspended 19 members of the party for the rest of the concerned session and referred the matter to the Privileges Committee of the Assembly for recommending appropriate disciplinary action. The Committee, after having carefully evaluated the conduct of the members, recommended that six of them be prohibited from attending the first 10 days of the next session of the Assembly in addition to being deprived of the other benefits that flow from holding a legislative post. The recommendations of the Committee were accepted by the Assembly by virtue of a resolution dated 31.03.2015, giving rise to the filing of the writ petition under discussion.

The petitioners, who decided to directly move the Supreme Court by invoking its extraordinary powers under Article 32, claimed that their suspension fell foul of their 4 fundamental rights: Freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a); freedom to practice the occupation of one’s choice under Article 19(1)(g); right to a non-arbitrary procedure flowing from Article 14; and right to receive their salary and other accompanying benefits flowing from Article 21.

In response to the petitioners’ contention about the infraction of their freedom of speech, the Court framed the scope of its inquiry in the following way in para 16: “Two questions are required to be examined in the context; (i) when a member of a State Legislature participates in the proceedings of the House, is that member exercising a fundamental right of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a)? (ii) Whether any action, either of that legislative body or any other authority, acting pursuant to any law, disabling either temporarily or otherwise a member from participating in the proceedings of the legislative body, amounts to deprivation of the fundamental right to freedom of speech under Article 19(1)(a) of such a legislator?”

After noting the constitutional scheme governing the proceedings in the Parliament and legislative bodies under Articles 105 and 194, the Court held that the freedom of speech guaranteed to legislators is merely a constitutional right and cannot, therefore, be equated with the fundamental right to freedom of speech embodied in Article 19(1)(a). The distinction between the nature of these two rights, as the Court explains in para 18 of the judgment, flows from 4 main factors: While the fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) inheres in every citizen, the constitutional right under Article 105(1) and 194(1) only inheres in legislators; while the former is inalienable, the latter only applies during the tenure of a legislator in the Assembly/Parliament; while the geographical scope of the former has not been circumscribed by the Constitution, the latter only applies within the confines of the premises of legislative bodies; and while the former is subject to reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2), the latter is subject to the rules of the legislative body and the constitutionally imposed restriction under Article 121 and 211 on discussion of the conduct of judges.

While this distinction is founded on sound legal principles, three features of the Court’s enunciation of the distinction merit emphasis. First, implicit in the Court’s reasoning is the belief that Article 19(1)(a) does not apply within the premises of legislative bodies on account of the existence of special provisions under Articles 105 and 194. However, the Court does not offer any principled rationale for such non-application and, in fact, explicitly recognizes that there are no geographical limits on the applicability of Article 19(1)(a). While it is true that the right under Article 105(1) and 194(1) serves a different set of purposes from those served by the fundamental right to speak freely, it is submitted that this, alone, cannot be a ground to hold that the scope, width and amplitude of the two rights are entirely different. Therefore, instead of viewing these two rights as being completely different in their scope and application, it may have made more sense for the Court to say that the right to speak freely within legislative bodies is a specific facet of the fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) that possesses some sui generis features. Viewing the right under Article 105(1) and 194(1), metaphorically speaking, as a distinct stream flowing from the river i.e. Article 19(1)(a) would, it is submitted, result in the right being secured on firmer constitutional moorings.

More specifically, such a conception of the right would allow the court to engage in a deeper analysis of whether the restriction on a legislator’s right to speak freely within the legislative body is constitutionally defensible instead of merely stating that, since the reasonableness of such a restriction cannot be tested against the touchstone of Article 19(2), it is constitutionally tenable so long as its curtailment is sanctioned by parliamentary rules and other constitutional restrictions such as those found in Articles 121 and 211.

Second, the Court’s recognition of the right of legislator’s to speak freely as a constitutional right viz. something more than a legal right but less than a fundamental right may make sense in the abstract but does not appear to have any concrete relevance. As Gautam Bhatia rightly noted in the context of the Supreme Court’s decision pertaining to the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act, it is unclear what, precisely, the recognition of a right as a constitutional right means. This distinction is of special relevance in this case because the Court goes on to hold that, since the right under Article 194 is merely a constitutional right and is subject to the restrictions set forth in the Constitution, it cannot be said that the petitioners’ fundamental right to speak freely was violated in this case (para 20). Third, although the court notes in para 18 that the origin of the right of legislators to speak freely within the premises of the legislative body can be traced back to the privileges in the House of Commons, Justice Chelameswar does not meaningfully address how the historic importance of this freedom must inform our contemporary understanding of it. More specifically, as the Supreme Court noted in the case of Raja Ram Pal versus the Hon’Ble Speaker, Lok Sabha, the historic origin of the freedom of speech of Parliamentarians can be traced back to Article 9 of the Bill of Rights, 1689, which “includes the freedom of the member to state whatever he thinks fit in debate, howsoever offensive it may be to the feelings, or injurious to the character, of individuals. He is protected by his privilege from any action for libel, as well as from any question or molestation…” (May’s Parliamentary Practice, 23rd edn., pp 96-97). Therefore, Justice Chelameswar would have been able to offer a far more nuanced and constitutionally defensible justification for the distinction between Article 19(1)(a) and 105(1)/194(1) by grounding his analysis in the unique considerations that must have weighed with the Constituent Assembly while crafting Article 105(1) and 194(1), such as the need to promote uninhibited debate about issues of public relevance and the need to offer legislators and parliamentarians the freedom to criticize the policies of the ruling dispensation, no matter how caustic or unpleasant their remarks might be.

The petitioners’ second argument was that the term ‘occupation’ under Article 19(1)(g) is of a sufficiently wide amplitude to cover the work of legislators within its ambit (para 22). The Court rejected this argument on two main grounds: First, an essential prerequisite for invoking the benefit of Article 19(1)(g) is that the activity in question must necessarily be a livelihood-generating activity and, since economic benefits are merely incidental to the work of legislators, their work cannot be said to be motivated by the objective of eking a livelihood. Second, since it has been held that the right to contest elections is not a fundamental right, it can be logically inferred that an individual does not have a fundamental right to hold a legislative post or to enjoy the benefits that flow from holding such a post by virtue of an election (paras 25 and 26). Again, while the Court’s reasoning appears constitutionally defensible for the most part, the Court does not offer a sufficiently robust justification in support of its holding that the job of legislators cannot be treated as an ‘occupation’ because they are tasked with the responsibility of discharging constitutionally prescribed goals and are not expected to work principally for earning financial returns. The practitioners of many noble professions, it can be legitimately argued, pursue their chosen profession as an end in itself and not as a means to an end, making the financial benefit flowing from their work transient or incidental. Therefore, it is difficult to understand how the Court views the transient nature of financial benefits flowing from legislative office as a determinative factor for coming to the conclusion that the work of legislators does not come within the ambit of the term ‘occupation’.

As the Court rightly recognized, the petitioners’ third argument about the violation of their fundamental right under Article 21 on account of their suspension was wholly baseless and unfounded. The Court rejected this argument principally on the ground that legislators do not have an independent and indefeasible right to claim the benefits that flow from holding a legislative post, so the question of violation of Article 21 does not arise (para 29).

The petitioners’ fourth and final argument swung the decision in their favour. The video recording of the unruly conduct of the petitioners on 19.02.2015, that the Privileges Committee relied on for arriving at its conclusion about the guilt of the petitioners, was not shared with the latter at any point during the disciplinary proceedings. This omission, the petitioners argued, was not only violative of principles of natural justice but also fell foul of their fundamental right to a fair, transparent and non-arbitrary hearing under Article 14. The Court accepted this argument for a trifecta of reasons. First, the Court emphasized the critical importance of the video recording in the proceedings of the Privileges Committee because the recording formed the factual foundation upon which the recommendations of the Committee against the petitioners were based (para 38). A failure to share such a crucial piece of evidence with the petitioners, the Court held, amounted to a glaring impropriety that vitiated the legality of the proceedings. Second, if the petitioners had been afforded an opportunity to view the video recording, the Court opined, they would have been able to put forth cogent and compelling reasons for justifying their conduct – indeed, one Petitioner sought the permission of the Committee to explain his conduct on the basis of the recording and another expressed his conviction that the recording would conclusively prove his version of events (paras 41 and 42). Finally, the Privileges Committee was legally bound to afford an opportunity to the petitioners to view the video recording so as to make its procedure compliant with Article 14. Viewed through this lens, the opportunity to view the recording was not just a means to an end – to afford the petitioners an opportunity to rationalize their conduct or to rebut the allegations of the Committee – but an end in itself as they were legally entitled to this procedural guarantee (para 42). On account of this procedural lacuna in the conduct of the Committee, the Court quashed the resolution dated 31.03.2015 and held that the petitioners were entitled to the benefits that they were deprived of owing to the Recommendations of the Committee.

In the final analysis, it can be said with considerable certitude that, even though the judgment is founded on a lucid and robust application of relevant legal principles, it fails to grapple with the constitutional questions that this case poses with the level of depth, nuance and intellectual rigor that they merit.

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Filed under Article 14, Equality, Freedom of Trade, Parliamentary Privileges

The Striking Down of Section 66A: How Indian Free Speech Jurisprudence Found its Soul Again

In the best piece of free speech news since 1960, the Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down Section 66A of the IT Act, that criminalised “grossly offensive”, “menacing” and “annoying or inconvenient” speech over the internet. There has been a substantial degree of commentary about the judgment over the last two days. In this post, I will attempt a detailed excavation of the many fascinating strands of the judgment, from the point of view of free speech doctrine.

Use of American First Amendment jurisprudence

A month ago, I wrote a rather exasperated post about a bizarre Delhi High Court decision allowing the police to pull down political posters from the walls of private property, on the ground that “Delhites have short fuses”, and that political posters could therefore be a threat to public order.  In particular, when American free speech jurisprudence was cited before Justice Endlaw, he refused to consider those cases, on the ground that while the American First Amendment is “absolute” (“Congress shall make no law… abridging… the freedom of speech”), Article 19(2) is subject to reasonable restrictions. This cavalier dismissal highlights the highly opportunistic manner in which the Indian judiciary has engaged with American First Amendment law over the years. On occasions when it helps to buttress a point, judges have shown no compunctions in quoting the grand, eloquent pronouncements of the American judiciary on the freedom of speech; but of course, American First Amendment law has historically been far more speech-protective than its Indian counterpart. Consequently, when judges wishing to uphold far-reaching restrictions upon the freedom of speech are faced with contrary American cases, instead of engaging with the reasoning and demonstrating why it is invalid or inapplicable, they invariable invoke the “First Amendment is an absolute!” trope, and save themselves the trouble of having to consider contrary reasoning.

As I’ve tried to argue before, a refusal to engage with judicially trained minds grappling with very similar issues achieves nothing but stifling exposure to a range of rigorously thought-through and developed viewpoints, and harms the overall quality of reasoning. More importantly, though, the argument that the First Amendment is an absolute, and 19(2) contains reasonable restrictions, is a canard. The First Amendment is not absolute. No American judge, apart from Hugo Black, and possibly William Douglas, has held it to be. The First Amendment permits regulation of incitement to imminent lawless action, obscenity, fighting words, true threats, blackmail, copyright infringement, insider trading, consumer fraud and commercial speech. This was clearly understood by the framers. In the Constituent Assembly Debates, Ambedkar himself observed:

“It is wrong to say that fundamental rights in America are absolute. The difference between the position under the American Constitution and theDraft Constitution is one of form and not of substance. That the fundamental rights in America are not absolute rights is beyond dispute. In support of every exception to the fundamental rights set out in the Draft Constitution one can refer to at least one judgment of the United States Supreme Court.”

He then specifically went on to cite an American judgment on restrictions upon free speech – Gitlow vs New York.

In Paragraphs 14 to 19, Justice Nariman clinically demolishes the aforementioned canard. Citing Chaplinsky vs New Hampshire, the classic American judgment affirming that the First Amendment is not absolute, he correctly points out that the American Supreme Court has never given literal effect to the “make no law” phrase. He then correctly notes that the crucial difference between the American and Indian positions is that while in the United States, a compelling public interest must be demonstrated in order to regulate speech, in India, a restriction must be covered by the eight themes specified in Article 19(2). In other words, there could be occasions when the Indian Constitution protects more speech than the American! In any event, subject to this rider, Justice Nariman notes:

“Viewed from the above perspective, American judgments have great persuasive value on the content of freedom of speech and expression and the tests laid down for its infringement.”

And this is exactly as it should be. There is much to disagree with in American free speech law. But what is undeniable is that over a hundred years, American judges have crafted a deep, thoughtful and complex set of principles for understanding the purposes of the freedom of speech in a constitutional democracy. We might reject their principles completely, but we need to engage with them.

Public interest cannot be a ground for restricting speech

In specifying that under the Constitution, speech can be restricted only under one of the eight listed grounds under Article 19(2), Justice Nariman states twice that “public interest” is not one of the grounds, and so cannot be invoked to justify a speech restriction. In paragraph 21, he notes:

“Under our constitutional scheme, as stated earlier, it is not open to the State to curtail freedom of speech to promote the general public interest.”

Immediately after, he cites Sakal Papers vs Union of India in support of this proposition.

This might sound like an innocuous statement, but it is critically important. This is because, over the years, judges have repeatedly ignored the fact that Article 19(2) exhaustively lists eight grounds of restriction, and that public interest is not one of them (unlike in Article 19(6)). Judges have upheld restrictions upon the nebulous grounds of “public interest” and “social interest”. In Ranjit Udeshi vs State of Maharashtra, for instance, while upholding obscenity law, Justice Hidayatullah traveled beyond the terms of the Constitution to observe that the freedom of speech “is subject to reasonable restrictions which may be thought necessary in the interest of the general public.” He then used that to elide the “decency and morality” clause with “public morality.”

In K.A. Abbas vs Union of India, while upholding a regime of pre-censorship upon cinema, that same Justice Hidayatullah observed:

“… social interest of the people override individual freedom. Whether we regard the state as the paren patriae or as guardian and promoter of general welfare, we have to concede, that these restraints on liberty may be justified by their absolute necessity and clear purpose. Social interests take in not only the interests of the community but also individual interests which cannot be ignored. A balance has therefore to be struck between the rival claims by reconciling them. The larger interests of the community require the formulation of policies and regulations to combat dishonesty, corruption, gambling, vice and other things of immoral tendency and things which affect the security of the State and the preservation of public order and tranquillity.”

In In Re Arundhati Roy, the contempt of court case, the Court held:

“… whether there can be a balancing between the two public interests, the freedom of expression and the dignity of the court.”

Examples may be multiplied, but there is a clear pattern here. The worst free speech judgments of the Supreme Court have come when the Court has traveled beyond its brief, collapsed the specific terms of 19(2) into a boundless and boundlessly manipulable vision of “public” or “social” interest, and then upheld the far-reaching restrictions that the government has sought to impose. There come times in the history of any constitutional court, when jurisprudence becomes so utterly untethered from the constitutional text and principles, that what is most urgently needed is simply a reaffirmation of the basic meaning of text and structure. In doing so, Justice Nariman has performed the incalculably important service of re-orienting free speech jurisprudence back towards its fundamental goals and purposes: interpreting the Constitution of a liberal-democratic polity.

“In the interests of”, “tendency”, and the requirement of proximity

Article 19(2) permits “reasonable restrictions” “in the interests” of the eight prescribed themes. The major contestation in Indian free speech law has turned upon the interpretation of “reasonable” and “in the interests of”. In Ramji Lal Modi and Virendra, two cases decided in 1957, the Supreme Court stated that the phrase “in the interests of” was wider in ambit than the phrase “for the maintenance of”, and consequently, authorised the government to regulate any speech that had a “tendency” towards, for instance, public disorder. In Modi, the Court upheld S. 295A on the ground that intentional outrage to religious feelings had the “calculated tendency” (sic!) to disrupt public order. In Virendra, the Court held prior restraint upon the press under the colonial era Press (Emergency Powers) Act to be constitutional, for the same reason. A plea that there must be proximity between speech and disorder was expressly rejected in Modi.

The word “tendency” is pernicious and damaging. It speaks back to American free speech jurisprudence in the 1920s, when the Supreme Court used a “bad tendency” test to persecute anti-war dissenters, trade-union leaders, leftists and pacifists of various hues. Understanding the sheer unworkability of this test, the Court abandoned it in the 1940s, adopting Justice Holmes and Brandeis’ test of “clear and present” danger. The reason is obvious: “tendency” can mean just about anything, from imminence to the faintest causality. If I start smoking now, I will have a tendency to cancer, even though cancer may set in forty years later. But “tendency” has attained an ubiquitous place in Indian speech restricting laws. The Contempt of Courts Act, for instance, criminalises speech that can have the “tendency” of lowering the repute of the Court; S. 292 of the IPC criminalises material that “tends” to deprave or corrupt. And so on.

Fortunately, we did not have to wait as long as the US to push back against the idea of “tendency”. In Ram Manohar Lohia’s Case (1960), the Supreme Court cleverly “distinguished” precedent, and held that there was a requirement of proximity between speech and the threatened disorder, and that the connection must not be remote, arbitrary or fanciful. In Lohia, a law criminalising instigating people to not pay their taxes was struck down, because it was held not to have a proximate connection to public disorder. Subsequent cases have tightened this test – in S. Rangarajan, the Court held that the connection must be that of a “spark in a powder keg”, and in Arup Bhuyan, that there must be “incitement to imminent lawless action.” But “tendency” has also continued to be invoked by the Courts with alarming regularity. Soon after Lohia, the Court upheld the crime of sedition in Kedar Nath Singh (1962), on the ground that the State could legitimately criminalise speech that had a “tendency” to public disorder.

As in the case of “public interest”, we can immediately see that “tendency” has been responsible – again – for some of the most regressive and speech-restricting decisions of the Indian Supreme Court.

In the 66A judgment, Justice Nariman emphatically adopts the requirement of proximity. He cites Ram Manohar Lohia’s case, highlighting the need for an “intimate connection” between speech and the prohibited 19(2) category.

Incitement vs advocacy: Collapsing “tendency” into imminence

The requirement of an intimate connection is expressed by Justice Nariman in the form of a crucial distinction: between advocacy and incitement. In paragraph 13, he observes:

Mere discussion or even advocacy of a particular cause howsoever unpopular is at the heart of Article 19(1)(a). It is only when such discussion or advocacy reaches the level of incitement that Article 19(2) kicks in. It is at this stage that a law may be made curtailing the speech or expression that leads inexorably to or tends to cause public disorder…”

The distinction between “advocacy” and “incitement” is grounded in the idea of proximity, or imminence. For instance, my “advocating” a violent revolution against the State by writing articles in magazines, or even delivering public lectures, does not constitute “incitement”. However, my whipping up a mob into a frenzy and directing it to imminent violent action does. The enquiry is contextual, and is clearly limited to emergent, specific situations. In other words, Justice Nariman emphatically rejects the proposition that an idea, or a message, can be criminalised because of its communicative content. It is only when there is a relationship of immediacy between speech and action – “speech brigaded with action”, in the words of Justice Douglas – that the law can kick in. I have argued elsewhere that this view is consistent with our most basic ideas of individual autonomy and responsibility. But what is most interesting here is that Justice Nariman then collapses “tendency” into the incitement requirement. He says that it is at the stage of incitement when the law kicks in, to curtail speech that tends to cause disorder.

In other words, the concept of “tendency” that motivated the Court in Modi, Virendra and Kedar Nath Singh is emphatically discarded here. Justice Nariman holds that even if speech has a “tendency” to disorder (say, for instance, a revolutionary tract), that in itself is not a ground for restriction: there must, further, be incitement. To come back to my smoking example – I have a tendency to cancer when I start smoking, but cancer is “imminent” (or “inexorable”) only at a much, much later stage.

Thus, even while maintaining continuity with precedent, by continuing to use “tendency”, Justice Nariman effectively knocks the bottom out of the entire rationale for upholding 295A and sedition.

In paragraph 36 onwards, he buttresses this by collapsing tendency into the American “clear and present danger” test, even citing Modi and Kedar Nath Singh! In paragraph 41, he concludes the public order enquiry by holding:

“Viewed at either by the standpoint of the clear and present danger test or the tendency to create public disorder, Section 66A would not pass muster as it has no element of any tendency to create public disorder which ought to be an essential ingredient of the offence which it creates.”

There is a small quibble here: in paragraph 37, Justice Nariman observes:

“The test of “clear and present danger” has been used by the U.S. Supreme Court in many varying situations and has been adjusted according to varying fact situations. It appears to have been repeatedly applied, see- Terminiello v. City of Chicago 93 L. Ed. 1131 (1949) at page 1134-1135, Brandenburg v. Ohio 23 L. Ed. 2d 430 (1969)”

Strictly speaking, this is incorrect. The “clear and present danger” test was found to be prone to gross abuse during the McCarthy years, when the Court invoked it to convict communist party members and other dissidents. Far from using “clear and present danger”, Brandenburg vs Ohio was the case that rejected it, in favour of a more stringent “incitement to imminent lawless action” test. The Brandenburg standard was adopted by the Supreme Court in 2011, in Arup Bhuyan’s Case. In that respect, it is something of a pity that Justice Nariman endorses “clear and present danger” instead of Brandenburg. Nonetheless, it is also arguable that his disquisition on the distinction between “advocacy” and “incitement” effectively speaks to a Brandenburg level of protection, going forward.

Meaning of Public Order

The term “public order” is a term of art. In Romesh Thappar, independent India’s first free speech judgment, it was defined as “a state of tranquility which prevails amongst the members of a political society.” In Ram Manohar Lohia vs State of Bihar (a different case that also involved Ram Manohar Lohia), the Court conceptualised three concentric circles: “law and order” being the widest, “public order” being narrower, and “security of the state” being the narrowest. Thus, a disruption of public order is something graver than merely breaking a law, or disrupting “law and order”. In the free speech judgments since Lohia, however, this definition has been largely ignored (the Delhi High Court case cited above is a classic example). As in the case of rejecting “public interest” as a ground of restriction, the Court’s endorsement of Lohia provides a crucial reaffirmation of the fact that constitutional terms – especially terms that limit fundamental rights, cannot be arbitrarily expanded, and the Court must adjudicate constitutionality specifically upon the touchstone of their defined meanings.

On a combination of all these factors – that the terms of S. 66A did not establish a proximate link with public order, as defined, the Court held that Article 19(2) did not save that section, at least insofar as public order was concerned. The same analysis was applied to defamation, and decency and morality – the Court reaffirming its recent judgment in Aveek Sarkar’s case. The government’s attempt to escape unconstitutionality by adding an exhaustive set of guidelines (see para 48) was correctly rejected, on the ground that this was tantamount to rewriting the whole section. Consequently, the Court struck it down.

Vagueness

In Grayned vs Rockford, the American Supreme Court defined a vague statute as one which ensured that persons of “ordinary intelligence… have no reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited.” In Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab, the Supreme Court – citing this case – observed that “it is the basic principle of legal jurisprudence that an enactment is void for vagueness if its prohibitions are not clearly defined. Vague laws offend several important values… laws should 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. Such a law impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen and also judges for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application.”

There are, therefore, two problems with vague statutes. One is a rule-of-law problem: citizens do not have a fair chance to plan their affairs. The second is a delegation problem: the executive is given far too much discretion to implement vague laws on the ground. We have seen both issues at play with the abuse of S. 66A over the years.

While in K.A. Abbas, the Supreme Court admitted that vagueness could be a ground for striking down a law, it did not do so (despite the Central Guidelines for film certification, which were at issue, being bizarrely overbroad.) In Baldeo Prasad, the Court struck down a law that criminalised goondas, but did not define who a “goonda” was. But the 66A judgment is the first time – to my knowledge – that the Court has struck down a speech-restricting law on the grounds of vagueness. Crucially, the Court observes that it is not possible for the legislature to cast “a net large enough to catch all possible offenders and leave it to the Court to step in and say who could be rightfully detained and who should be set at liberty.”

After citing a copious degree of American and Indian jurisprudence to establish the principle of vagueness, Justice Nariman correctly observes, in paragraph 69, that “judged by the standards laid down in the aforesaid judgments, it is quite clear that the expressions used in 66A are completely open-ended and undefined.” Further contributing to the vagueness are the absence of mens rea, and a series of terms (such as “obstruction”, “danger” or “annoyance”) which are ingredients of an offence in the Indian Penal Code (that of public nuisance), but have become offences in themselves in the IT Act (para 72). Justice Nariman distinguishes other IPC provisions that use identical terms (such as Ss. 294 and 510) on similar grounds, and ends by noting the sheer subjectivity of the words that constitute offences under the IT Act:

“… every expression used is nebulous in meaning. What may be offensive to one may not be offensive to another. What may cause annoyance or inconvenience to one may not cause annoyance or inconvenience to another. Even the expression “persistently” is completely imprecise – suppose a message is sent thrice, can it be said that it was sent “persistently”?”

Over-breadth and the Chilling Effect

Over-breadth is a concept that is closely connected with – but not identical to – the chilling effect. A statute is over-broad if – in the words of the Indian Supreme Court in Chintaman Rao vs State Madhya Pradesh,  “the language employed is wide enough to cover restrictions both within and without the limits of constitutionally permissible legislative action affecting the right. So long as the possibility of its being applied for purposes not sanctioned by the Constitution cannot be ruled out, it must be held to be wholly void.”

Over-breadth directly implicates the reasonableness requirement of Article 19(2). In State of Madras vs V.G. Row, the Supreme Court held that a “reasonable restriction” under Articles 19(2) to (6) would have to satisfy the requirements of proportionality: “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.” It is clear that if a statute proscribes conduct that is much broader than what is permitted under Article 19(2), on the ground that there is some – tenuous – connection between the two, there is good reason to argue that the restriction is disproportionate.

While in Chintaman Rao, the Court struck down a statute for being over-broad, over-breadth as a constitutional concept has not yet managed to acquire a foothold in Indian constitutional jurisprudence. Here again, Justice Nariman’s judgment breaks new ground by expressly invoking over-breadth as a ground for striking down a speech-restricting statute. In paragraph 83, he observes:

Information that may be grossly offensive or which causes annoyance or inconvenience are undefined terms which take into the net a very large amount of protected and innocent speech.

And, in paragraph 86:

“[66A’s restrictions] fall foul of the repeated injunctions of this Court that restrictions on the freedom of speech must be couched in the narrowest possible terms.”

This is not all, however. Justice Nariman makes a further, crucial link: between vagueneness and overbreadth, and the chilling effect. The chilling effect refers to a situation where, faced with uncertain, speech-restricting statutes, which blur the line between what is permitted and what is proscribed, citizens are likely to self-censor, in order to be definitively safe. In the words of Justice Brennan, writing in New York Times vs Sullivan, citizens will “tend to make only statements which steer far wider of the unlawful zone… thus dampen[ing] the vigour and limit[ing] the variety of public debate.” In other words, the chilling effect – which applies across different areas of free speech law – ensures that self-censorship will extend even to entirely legitimate speech, and will impoverish the public discourse – the sustenance and enrichment of which is the entire point of free speech in the first place.

Yet again, it is crucial to note here that although past Indian cases have made vague references to the chilling effect (R. Rajagopal and Khushboo), again, the 66A judgment is the first that uses the concept to arrive at a positive legal outcome. In paragraph 83, after examining all the myriad kinds of speech that 66A will reach, Justice Nariman observes:

“Such is the reach of the Section and if it is to withstand the test of constitutionality, the chilling effect on free speech would be total.”

And, in paragraph 90:

“We, therefore, hold that the Section is unconstitutional also on the ground that it takes within its sweep protected speech and speech that is innocent in nature and is liable therefore to be used in such a way as to have a chilling effect on free speech and would, therefore, have to be struck down on the ground of overbreadth.”

Article 14 and differences by medium

One last point remains to be noted. The core of the government’s argument was that the internet is a very different medium from print or cinema, and that consequently, the government should be allowed greater leeway to regulate it. In paragraph 27, Justice Nariman lists some of the facets of the government’s contention: that the internet has a much greater (global) reach, it reaches both literate and illiterate people, even cinema has pre-censorship rules (but the internet doesn’t), rumours can spread to “trillions” (sic!) of people, there is much greater scope for invasion of privacy, the internet provides much greater shelter to anonymity, there are no internal regulatory norms, and that the spread is much more rapid.

In contradistinction, the challengers made precisely the opposite argument. They contended that since S. 66A lacked the kinds of procedural and other safeguards present for the regulation of print media, there was an Article 14 violation of equality. According to the challengers, a principle of equivalence must apply across media of communication.

Interestingly, Justice Nariman rejects both contentions. He rejects the Article 14 argument, holding that the internet is indeed a medium with some unique qualities, and that it is possible that there might be certain offences that can only take place online. In paragraph 28, he notes that the government is entitled to draft narrowly-drawn provisions that specifically speak to those offences (such as website blocking). But in the very same paragraph, he also notes:

“[the differential nature of the internet would not]  relax the Court’s scrutiny of the curbing of the content of free speech over the internet. While it may be possible to narrowly draw a Section creating a new offence, such as Section 69A for instance, relatable only to speech over the internet, yet the validity of such a law will have to be tested on the touchstone of the tests already indicated above.”

In effect, what kind of speech might be restricted is agnostic to media. Furthermore, when it may be restricted (i.e., the 19(2)) principles, and the relationship of proximity) is also impervious to the difference in media. The only place where this difference might be relevant is where the medium itself allows for certain kinds of offences (such as spam, or phishing) that were not possible before, and in such circumstances, the State may frame a law, which will nonetheless be tested on the anvil of Article 19(2).

This raises the following question: in K.A. Abbas, the Court held pre-censorship to be valid in the case of cinema on the ground that films had a much more striking impact upon the average “illiterate” Indian viewer. In other words, the difference in medium was held to justify a difference in the form of the restriction – in particular, doing away with the proximity test, or at least, diluting it to an unrecognisable degree. The logic of Justice Nariman’s judgment, I would suggest, knocks the bottom out of the prior-restraint regime of film-censorship. It is not as if films permit the commission some specific kinds of offences that were not possible before (unlike the internet). In fact, the Court’s reasoning in K.A. Abbas was specifically based on an (unproven) assumption of how an “illiterate” audience reacts differently to the written word and the visual image. Cases after K.A. Abbas (such as Anand Patwardhan’s Case) have rejected the “illiterate Indian trope”, thus undermining the foundations of that holding. The 66A judgment, however, rejects that form of reasoning entirely.

Consequences

Constitutionally, what follows? I would suggest the following. Ever since Ram Manohar Lohia, there has been a gradual, incremental chipping away at the philosophical foundations of some of our most regressive, speech-restricting laws. Consider the following:

(a) Ramji Lal Modi upheld 295A on the ground that proximity was irrelevant, specifically rejected an over-breadth argument, and held that deliberate insults to religion had a “calculated tendency” to cause public disorder.

(b) Kedar Nath Singh upheld sedition (124A) on the ground that disaffection against the government had the “tendency” to public disorder.

(c) K.A. Abbas upheld pre-censorship of films on the ground of how the medium differently affects viewers; it rejected a challenge to the Censorship Guidelines on the ground of vagueness, and did not even consider an over-breadth argument.

(d) Contempt of court judgments (unfortunately, rather consistently) have held that certain forms of criticism against the court have a “tendency” to undermine justice.

(e)  Apart from Rajagopal’s Case, which is limited to public officials, the Supreme Court is yet to examine defamation law on the touchstone of Article 19(1)(a), and a criminal law of defamation continues to exist on the statute books. In countries such as the US, Canada, South Africa, and England, the “chilling effect” of the common law of defamation (strict liability) has been expressly invoked to limit its reach, and its propensity to be used as a tool of harassing journalists and investigative reporters.

At the same time, however:

(a) Ram Manohar LohiaS. Rangarajan and Arup Bhuyan (the latter two coming after Modi and Kedar Nath Singh) have insisted on a proximity requirement between speech and disorder.

(b) Chintaman Rao and Kameshwar Prasad have struck down statutes on over-breadth grounds (while not directly invoking the concept).

(c) Rajagopal’s case has incorporated the Sullivan rule to protect writers from civil defamation claims brought by public officials, and indirectly invoked the chilling effect.

This latter group of judgments, it is clear, have indirectly, implicitly undermined the foundations of the former. The 66A judgment makes it direct and explicit. Proximity, over-breadth, vagueness and the chilling effect are all expressly invoked to strike down a statute. They have been specifically incorporated into Indian free speech jurisprudence, and may be invoked in future free speech claims.

So perhaps, at long last, the time has come to rethink fifty-year old judgments upholding blasphemy and sedition laws, rethink criminal defamation, throw off the oppressive fetters of civil defamation and contempt of court, and attack the censorship guidelines of both cinema and cable TV.

This judgment lays the constitutional, legal and philosophical terrain to do all of that. It creates the ground upon which we can erect a progressive, liberal understanding of free speech, based upon a vision of individuals as responsible and autonomous beings, who do not need “protection” from moral corruption, and who do not need a paternalistic State or court telling them what they need to read, see or here. Individuals, one and all, worthy of dignity and equal concern and respect.

This is the first judgment since 1960 that unequivocally affirms every one of those propositions.

It is the judgment that has given Indian free speech law its soul back.

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The Supreme Court’s IT Act Judgment, and Secret Blocking

As has been widely reported by now, yesterday the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment striking down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, reading down S. 79 (intermediary liability) and upholding S. 69A (blocking of websites). I will be writing a detailed analysis of the jurisprudence behind the Court’s striking down of S. 66A in a while. In this post, however, I want to briefly comment on S. 69A and secret blocking.

S. 69A of the IT Act authorises the government to block access to websites, on grounds that roughly overlap with (but are not identical to) Article 19(2) of the Constitution (reasonable restrictions upon the freedom of speech). S. 69A(2) specifies that the procedure and safeguards for carrying out blocking will be specified. Pursuant to this, “Blocking Rules” were framed in 2009. The Blocking Rules prescribe who can make a blocking request, set up the (executive) authorities that will examine the requests, provide an opportunity for pre-decisional hearings for the intermediaries (and/or, if they can be traced, originators), and lay out the process for blocking. There are three crucial aspects that must be noted:

(a) The Rules do not provide for an appeals process.

(b) Rule 15 requires that Designated Officer to maintain records of blocking requests and actions taken, but

(c) Rule 16 stipulates that “strict confidentiality shall be maintained regarding all the requests and complaints received and actions taken thereof.”

As is obvious, the main problem with the Blocking Rules (among many others) is their secrecy. The rules require notice to the intermediary, but naturally, intermediaries are bound to be far more interested in avoiding confrontations with the government, and in self-preservation, than in defending the freedom of speech. Furthermore, Rule 16 requires confidentiality, thereby raising the presumption that nobody beyond the intermediaries ought to know about a block. For instance, when the Software Freedom Law Centre attempted to get access to blocking orders for 1208 blocked websites in 2013, it was denied on Rule 16 grounds. As has been well-documented, it is often difficult to even find out that a non-accessible website has been blocked, and even more difficult to find out why that has happened.

In this context, what does the Court’s judgment, upholding both S. 69A and the Rules in their entirety, mean? At Medianama, Nikhil Pahwa argues that in effect, secret blocks will now continue, just as they were happening before.

There are, however, two important aspects that ought to be noted.

First, consider Rule 8 of the Blocking Rules:

On receipt of request under rule 6, the Designated Officer shall make all reasonable efforts to identify the person or intermediary who has hosted the information or part thereof as well as the computer resource on which such information or part thereof is being hosted and where he is able to identify such person or intermediary and the computer resource hosting the information or part thereof which have been requested to be blocked for public access, he shall issue a notice…”

The text of the Rule uses the phrase “person or intermediary”, thus implying that notice may be sent to either the originator or the intermediary. This – as explained above – is deeply problematic. In his article, Nikhil writes:

If my site is blocked, don’t I have the right to know why it’s been blocked? Mobango.com, a company owned by the People Group (Shaadi.com), was blocked in India for six months and didn’t know why for the longest time. Where was their Committee hearing? Where was the hearing for Vimeo, Github, Dailymotion (read), Imgur (read)? Shouldn’t they be informed of the process of getting a block removed?”

In Paragraph 110 of the judgment, however, the Court notes:

“It is also clear from an examination of Rule 8 that it is not merely the intermediary who may be heard. If the “person” i.e. the originator is identified he is also to be heard before a blocking order is passed.”

In other words, the Court takes the disjunctive “or” in the Rule, and effectively transforms it into a conjunctive “and”. It therefore seems to be the case that henceforth – insofar as they can be identified, originators must also be notified of blocks, and given the opportunity to challenge them.

I would suggest, however, that the logic of the judgment goes even further. Consider Paragraph 109, where the Court holds S. 69A and the rules constitutional:

“It will be noticed that Section 69A unlike Section 66A is a narrowly drawn provision with several safeguards. First and foremost, blocking can only be resorted to where the Central Government is satisfied that it is necessary so to do. Secondly, such necessity is relatable only to some of the subjects set out in Article 19(2). Thirdly, reasons have to be recorded in writing in such blocking order so that they may be assailed in a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution.”

It is the “thirdly” that is crucial. The Court specifies that blocking orders must be reasoned, and in writing, so that they may be challenged under Article 226. Now, who may challenge a blocking order? Obviously, an intermediary and/or the originator are entitled to do so. But consider also paragraph 20 of the judgment, when the Court starts its examination of S. 66A:

“It is clear, therefore, that the petitioners are correct in saying that the public’s right to know is directly affected by Section 66A. Information of all kinds is roped in – such information may have scientific, literary or artistic value, it may refer to current events, it may be obscene or seditious. That such information may cause annoyance or inconvenience to some is how the offence is made out. It is clear that the right of the people to know – the market place of ideas – which the internet provides to persons of all kinds is what attracts Section 66A.”

The underlined portions tap into an established principle of Indian free speech jurisprudence: that Article 19(1)(a) guarantees not only the rights of speakers to express themselves, but also the rights of listeners (or, in the case of the internet, viewers) to access information (other Constitutions – such as the German and the South African – expressly include listeners’ rights as an aspect of the freedom of expression).

For instance, in LIC vs Manubhai D. Shah, while dealing with the rejection of a right of reply, the Supreme Court noted: “such an attitude on the part of the LIC can be described as both unfair and unreasonable; unfair because fairness demanded that both view points were placed before the readers, however limited be their number, to enable them to draw their own conclusions and unreasonable because there was no logic or proper justification for refusing publication… the respondent’s fundamental right of speech and expression clearly entitled him to insist that his views on the subject should reach those who read the magazine so that they have a complete picture before them and not a one sided or distorted one…

And, in State of UP vs Raj Narain, Justice Mathew, in his concurring opinion, noted:

In a Government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries.”

Examples can be multiplied, but suffice it to say that the right to information, and its corollary, the rights of readers and viewers to access information, constitute part of the right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a). But if that is true, then a website block implicates the constitutional rights not only of intermediaries and originators, but also of the general public – each member of which, for that reason, has the right to challenge the blocking under Article 226, as the Court specifically upheld. Now, it is impossible to challenge a blocking order unless one has access to it. Consequently, when the Court says that blocking orders must be reasoned and in writing, so that they may be challenged under Article 226, it follows by necessary implication that the blocking orders must be made available to the public.

The doctrine of necessary implication is well-accepted in statutory interpretation. A statute is understood to contain not only what is express, but also that which is necessary to effectuate its “object or purpose”, or to make effective the rights (or privileges) that it grants. This doctrine would apply with even greater force to subordinate legislation, such as the Blocking Rules. Consequently, it may well be argued that even though the Court did not expressly overrule Rule 16, the logic of its judgment – in light of settled jurisprudence on Article 19(1)(a) – means that it did so impliedly. Admittedly, neither necessary implication nor implied overruling are to be lightly invoked, but in this case, not only does this conclusion seem to follow inexorably from the Supreme Court’s Article 19(1)(a) jurisprudence, but the fact that what is at issue is a subordinate legislation, the normal presumptions against necessary implication/implied overruling are consequently weaker.

This, of course, is probably an over-optimistic reading of the judgment. So perhaps the best way of settling this issue might well be through a clarification petition.

 

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