SC up­holds con­sti­tu­tional va­lid­ity of defama­tion law

Apex Court says free­dom of speech not an ab­so­lute right

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - HT Navi Mumbai Live - - FRONT PAGE - Bhadra Sinha bhadra.sinha@hin­dus­tan­times.com

NEW DELHI: Defama­tion will re­main a crim­i­nal of­fence in In­dia, the Supreme Court ruled on Fri­day, re­ject­ing pleas from top politi­cians and pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als that the British-era pro­vi­sion was an out­dated idea that un­der­mined free speech.

The ver­dict deals a blow to ad­vo­cates of free speech, who had hoped to nudge the courts to ei­ther abol­ish or wa­ter down the crim­i­nal defama­tion law which, they say, dis­cour­ages dis­sent and forces peo­ple to hold back even fair crit­i­cism of pow­er­ful peo­ple.

The court said the right to speech was sacro­sanct but not ab­so­lute, and that one’s right to rep­u­ta­tion was part of one’s fun­da­men­tal right to life.

“When rep­u­ta­tion is hurt, a man is half-dead. It can­not be cru­ci­fied at the al­tar of one’s right to free speech,” a bench com­pris­ing jus­tices Di­pak Misra and Pra­fulla C Pant said.

“(It is) dif­fi­cult to per­ceive that (the) pro­vi­sion on crim­i­nal defama­tion has chill­ing ef­fect on right to free­dom of speech and ex­pres­sion,” it said, adding the law served so­cial in­ter­est.

The court rul­ing came in re­sponse to more than two dozen pe­ti­tions, in­clud­ing from BJP leader Subra­ma­nian Swamy,

Congress vice pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi and Delhi chief min­is­ter Arvind Ke­jri­wal — all of whom face crim­i­nal defama­tion cases.

The court said they will have to stand trial in the cases against them.

The pe­ti­tion­ers still have the op­tion to ask the Supreme Court to re­view its ver­dict or re­fer the mat­ter to a con­sti­tu­tion bench.

In In­dia, crim­i­nal defama­tion is pun­ish­able by two

years in jail, a fine or both. In­di­ans largely en­joy free­dom of speech, but over the years cases have risen of dis­sent­ing voices be­ing dragged to court or cit­i­zens be­ing jailed for ex­press­ing their opin­ion, es­pe­cially on so­cial me­dia.

World-over free-speech votaries are push­ing to de-crim­i­nalise defama­tion, but many democ­ra­cies, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia, South Africa and sev­eral Euro­pean

na­tions per­sist with the law. Sev­eral states in Mex­ico and the United States still crim­i­nalise defama­tion. Closer home, crim­i­nal defama­tion in Pak­istan and Bangladesh crim­i­nal can land one in prison.

The top court, how­ever, ad­vised mag­is­trates to be ex­tremely care­ful in is­su­ing sum­mons to peo­ple ac­cused of crim­i­nal defama­tion.

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