Thin line between free speech and contempt, says SC
NEWDELHI: The Supreme Court on Tuesday reserved its order on a 2009 contempt petition against lawyer Prashant Bhushan after holding in-camera proceedings, at the end of which Bhushan said his remarks alleging that former chief justices of India had been corrupt did not refer to financial wrongdoing but lack of propriety. “You have stood for freedom of speech and expression but it may be the case that you might have crossed the thin line of contempt,” a bench of justices Arun Mishra, BR Gavai, and Krishna Murari said.
NEWDELHI: The Supreme Court on Tuesday reserved its order on a 2009 contempt petition against lawyer Prashant Bhushan after holding in-camera proceedings, at the end of which Bhushan said his remarks alleging former chief justices of India were corrupt did not refer to financial wrongdoing but lack of propriety.
A bench of justices Arun Mishra, BR Gavai, and Krishna Murari said, “In case we do not accept the explanation/apology, we will hear the matter. We reserve the order.” Since the matter was heard in-camera the parties refused to comment.
Contempt proceedings in the present case were initiated by the Supreme Court in 2009 on a petition moved by senior advocate Harish Salve over Bhushan’s comment to Tehelka magazine on September 5, 2009. The court initiated contempt action against Tehelka’s former editor Tarun Tejpal too. He was present in the hearing on Tuesday and offered an apology.
Senior advocates Rajiv Dhavan and Kapil Sibal represented Bhushan and Tejpal while Salve too was present during the hearing held through videoconferencing. Before commencing the in-camera proceedings, the bench told Dhavan, “Please suggest a way out to avoid this rigmarole. We don’t want to curtail freedom of speech but we also want to save the grace of this institution which belongs to you as well.” “You have stood for freedom of speech and expression but it may be the case that you might have crossed the thin line of contempt. How do we save the grace of this system? I want to know from you as an amicus so that we can avoid this conflict. Suggest us some way out as the system also belongs to you,” the bench said.
The judges later spoke individually with Dhavan, Sibal and Salve through a WhatsApp video call and concluded arguments. Later in the day, the bench re-assembled and spoke again to the concerned lawyers. The bench said it was of the prima facie view that calling judges corrupt per se (by itself) was contempt. Sibal tendered an apology from Tejpal while Bhushan was willing to issue a statement.
Bhushan said, “In my interview to Tehelka in 2009 I have used the word corruption in a wide sense meaning lack of propriety. I did not mean only financial corruption or deriving any pecuniary advantage. If what I have said caused hurt to any of them or to their families in any way, I regret the same.”
Dhavan was of the opinion that any final decision on whether contempt is made out or not can be arrived only after hearing the parties. Meanwhile, Bhushan faces fresh contempt action from the Court for his alleged tweets on June 27 and June 29. In one he criticized CJI SA Bobde for riding a bike while keeping the Courts closed while in the other, he accused the judiciary of destroying democracy without a formal Emergency. This case is coming up before a bench headed by justice Arun Mishra on Wednesday.
CONTEMPT PROCEEDINGS WERE INITIATED BY THE SC IN 2009 ON A PETITION OVER BHUSHAN’S COMMENT TO TEHELKA THAT HALF OF THE PAST 16 CJIS WERE CORRUPT