Freedom of speech and expression

Freedom of speech and expression is indispensable in a democracy. It has been held to be an essential element for the proper functioning of the process of popular Government in Romesh Thapper v State of Madras[1].

Article 19 (1)(a) says that all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression but this right is subject to the limitations laid down in Article 19 (2).

Freedom of speech and expression means the right to express one’s own convictions and opinions freely by words of mouth, printing, pictures etc. it includes expression of one’s ideas through any communication form. The fundamental principle involved here is people’s right to know. This freedom of expression has four broad purposes to serve:

  1. It helps an individual to attain self fulfillment
  2. It assists in discovery of truth
  3. It strengthens the capacity of an individual in participating in decision making
  4. It provides a mechanism by which it would be possible to establish a reasonable balance between stability and social change.

In Prabhu Dutt v Union of India[2], the Supreme Court has held that the right to knows news and information regarding administration of the government is included in the freedom of press but this right is not absolute and restrictions can be imposed on it in the interest of society and the individual from which the press obtains information. They can obtain information from an individual when he voluntarily agrees to give such information.

Commercial advertisement

Advertisements are definitely a form of speech but not every form of advertisement is a form of speech or expression of ideas. Advertisement when it takes the form of commercial advertisement no longer falls within the concept of freedom of speech because it is not the communication of ideas- social, political or economic or furtherance of human thought. An advertisement of commercial nature is thus not protected under Article 19 (1)(a).

In Hamdard Dawakhana v Union of India[3],the validity of the Drug and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisement) Act, which put restrictions on advertisement of drugs in certain cases and prohibited advertisements of drugs having magic qualities for curing diseases was challenged on the ground that the restriction abridged the freedom of speech. The Supreme Court held that an advertisement is no doubt a form of speech but every advertisement is not a matter dealing with the freedom of speech and expression of ideas. Here this advertisement was held to be dealing with commerce or trade thus not under the Article 19 (1)(a).

Territorial extent

There are no geographical limitation to freedom of speech and expression and this freedom is exercisable not only in India but outside also and if the State imposes an action which restricts the citizens’ freedom of expression in any country in the world, it would violate Article 19 (1)(a).

In Maneka Gandhi v Union of India[4], the Union of India contended that the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution were available only within the territory of India. The Supreme Court rejected this contention and held that the right to freedom of speech and expression has no geographical limitations.

Restrictions to Article 19 (1)(a)

Clause (2) of Article 19 contains the grounds on which restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression can be imposed-

  1. Security of the state
  2. Friendly relations with foreign states
  3. Public order
  4. Decency or morality
  5. Contempt of court
  6. Defamation
  7. Incitement of an offence
  8. Sovereignty and integrity of India

Security of the State

Under Article 19 (2), reasonable restrictions can be imposed on freedom of speech and expression in the interest of security of the State. In Romesh Thapper v State of Madras[5], the Supreme Court has interpreted the meaning of the words ‘security of the State’. The term refers only to serious and aggravated forms of public disorder like waging war against the State, and not ordinary breaches of public order and public safety like riot.

The words ‘in the interest of’ before the words ‘security of the State’ clearly imply that the actual result of the act is immaterial. Thus acts which may directly bring about an overthrow of the State would come within this expression.

Friendly relations with foreign states

This was added by the Constitution (1st Amendment) Act, 1951. The object behind the provision is to prohibit unrestrained malicious propaganda against a foreign friendly State which may jeopardize the good relations between India and that State.

In India, the Foreign Relations Act, 1932 provides punishment for libel by Indian citizens against foreign dignitaries. But the interest of friendly relations with foreign States would not justify the suppression of fair criticism of foreign policy of the Government.

Public order

Public order is something more than ordinary maintenance of law and order. It is synonymous with public peace, safety and tranquility. The test for determining whether an act affects public order is to see whether the act leads to the disturbances of the current life of the community so as to amount to a disturbance of the public order or whether it affects merely an individual being.

Contempt of court

Restriction on the freedom of speech and expression can be imposed if it exceeds the reasonable and fair limit and amounts to contempt of court.

Defamation

A statement which injures a man’s reputation amounts to defamation. It consists in exposing a man to hatred, ridicule or contempt.

Incitement to an offence

This ground was added by the Constitution (1st Amendment) Act, 1951. Freedom of speech and expression cannot confer a license to incite people to commit an offence. What constitutes incitement depends on the facts and circumstances of a case.

Integrity and sovereignty of India

Freedom of speech and expression can be restricted so as not to permit any one to challenge the integrity or sovereignty of India or to preach cessation of any part of India from the Union.


[1] AIR 1950 SC 124.

[2] AIR 1982 SC 6.

[3] AIR 1960 SC 554.

[4] AIR 1978 SC 597.

[5] AIR 1950 SC 124.

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