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Judicial Censorship, Prior Restraint, and the Karnan Gag Order

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

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

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

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

Prior Restraint

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

The Media Guidelines Case

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

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

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

The Karnan Gag Order

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

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

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

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

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

Judicial Censorship

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

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

That is, in equal parts, alarming and tragic.

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Filed under Contempt of Court, Free Speech, judicial censorship

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

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

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

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

The Events

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

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

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

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

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

Judicial Censorship by the Bombay High Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judicial Evasion by the Supreme Court

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

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

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

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

Misapplication of Law

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Illegality of the Supreme Court’s National Anthem Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He then observed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Judicial censorship: A dangerous, emerging trend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A. The Use of Article 21 as a Sword

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. Judicial Restrictions under Article 19(2)

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

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

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Filed under Article 21 and the Right to Life, Free Speech