Thin line be­tween free speech and con­tempt, says SC

Hindustan Times (Gurugram) - - Gurugram - Abra­ham Thomas let­ters@hin­dus­tan­times.com

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

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