In the Supreme Court of India
Criminal original jurisdiction
Writ petition (Criminal) No. 184 of 2014
Union of India, Ministry if Law & ors.
Date of Judgement
Decided on Jan 21, 2014
Justice Dipak Misra CJI and Justice Prafulla C. Pant
Numerous petitions were filed by politicians such as Subramanian Swami, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind kejriwal (Who have been charged with Criminal defamation). They filed Writ petition under Art.32 of the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of the offence of criminal defamation as provided in Section 499 and 500 of IPC and Section 199(1) and 199(4) of CRPC holding it as a reasonable restriction on the right to freedom of expression.
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of Sections 499 to 502 and dismissed the petitions filed by Subramanian Swamy, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal challenging the provisions of criminal defamation.
BJP Leader Subramanian Swamy once tweeted about Ms. Jayalalitha (the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu) and an LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) meeting in Tamil Nadu. Rahul Gandhi made a speech alleging RSS involvement in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. And Arvind Kejriwal once accused Nitin Gadkari of being corrupt.
Dr. Subramanian Swamy and such other prominent politicians including Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal were charged for criminal defamation and they challenged the constitutional validity of the criminal defamation law in India provided under Section 499 and 500 of IPC and Section 199(1) and 199(4) of CRPC. The petitioners contended that criminal defamation is per se unconstitutional as it violative of the Right to freedom of expression.
Section 499 of IPC defines Defamation:
Whoever, by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person, is said, to defame that person. Imputation of truth is an exception to this provision.
Section 500 of IPC deals with the punishment with regard to defamation that includes simple imprisonment for a term that may extend to two years or with fine or both.
Added to this, Section 199 of CrPC deals with the provisions with regard to prosecution for defamation. This case was taken to a two judge bench of Supreme Court.
- Whether Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code is violative of the Right to freedom of speech and expression under Art.19 (a).
- Whether Section 199(1) and 199(4) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) is violative of the Right to freedom of speech and expression under Art.19 (a).
Arguments advanced in favour of Petitioners:
- Sections 499-500 IPC do not constitute a “reasonable restriction” on speech because, to begin with, even truth is not a defense. Even if a person speaks the truth, he can be prosecuted for defamation.
- A restriction that goes beyond the requirement of public interest cannot be considered as a reasonable restriction and would be arbitrary.
- It can be used to chill free speech by encouraging self-censorship
- There is nothing in section 499, nor in the case law, which protects a person who has not made any statement at all from being roped into a defamation case as a defendant on the bald allegation of having conspired with someone who did make a statement.
- It is arbitrary and overbroad to extend this protection even when the person is deceased and there is no longer any damage caused to his ability to earn a livelihood or live his life with respect.
- The provision in section 499 is not narrow and is not intended to restrict only what is necessary as it is unclear why ironical statements need to be prohibited.
- The requirement of the accused having to prove that the statement made by him was for public good is unwarranted and unreasonable because the words “public good” are quite vague.
- Crime is an offence against the society where state is the custodian; defamation of any person cannot be treated as a “crime” as it does not subserve any public interest.
- Defamation of an individual is a civil wrong, for which the common law remedy is an action or claim for damages.
- The procedural provisions Sec 199 of CrPC do not pass the test of reasonableness as envisaged under Art 19(2) of the Constitution.
- The classification under Sec 199(2) CrPC is impermissible as it provides a different procedure for certain category of persons and Court of Session to be the Court of first instance, and thereby creates two kinds of procedures and effects the equality clause.
Arguments advanced in favour of Respondents
- All Rights including the right to freedom of expression is not absolute but are subject to imposition of reasonable restrictions.
- Reputation of a person is an integral part of the right to life under Art.21 of the Indian Constitution. “Reputation of one cannot be allowed to be crucified at the altar of the other’s right of free speech,” the court said in its 268-page Judgement.
- The right to free speech under Art 19(1)(a) is itself conditioned/qualified by restrictions contained in Art 19(2) which includes “defamation” as one of the grounds of restriction and the term “defamation” includes criminal defamation.
- The right to speech and expression under Art.19 (1)(a) does not mean right to offend someone.
- Provisions for the Protection of reputation or the right against defamation are available in both civil as well as in the criminal law. Taking recourse to civil law cannot be a ground to declare Sec 499 of IPC as unconstitutional. Remedies under Civil law and Criminal law for defamation differ and hence do not violate any of the provisions of the Constitution.
- The ten exceptions provide reasonable safeguard to the provision and so it cannot be said that the provision suffers from lack of guidance and thereby disapprove the provisions of Art 14 of the Constitution.
- An injury to one’s reputation cannot be adequately compensated in monetary terms and the stand that the same can be remedied through taking recourse to civil law or by the way of obtaining a decree from the civil court is not justified.
The judgment in this case was delivered by Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Prafulla C. Pant. The judges first analyzed the meaning of the terms ‘defamation’ and ‘reputation’, and the interaction of these terms with right of the freedom of speech and expression. The Court after reviewing found that the terms were clear and unambiguous. The Court further found that the concept of ‘reputation’ is a part of ‘dignity’, which is a part of the constitutionally protected right to life under Art.21.
The Court recognized the sanctity and significance of the right to freedom of speech and expression in a democracy, but subject to reasonable restrictions. Such restrictions should serve the public interest. Legislation by which restrictions are enacted should not invade the rights and should not be arbitrary.
The Court accentuated that the law on criminal defamation is clear and thus distinguished other cases in which it had struck down legislation as infringing freedom of speech, such as Singhal v. Union of India and Rangarajan.
The Court further emphasized the importance Constitutional fraternity and fundamental duty, under which every citizen is expected to respect the dignity of another. Noting this as a constitutional duty, the Court held that it could not be concluded that the existence of criminal defamation law is obnoxious to freedom of speech and expression.
Moreover, the Court addressed the issues raised regarding the criminal defamation provisions violative of the concept of ‘reasonableness’, either substantively or procedurally, examining whether it is vague, or arbitrary or disproportionate.
Examining the stated provision on defamation (Section 499 and 500 of IPC, Section 199(1) and 199(4) of CrPC), the Court concluded that these were neither vague nor ambiguous. An imputation can only be treated as defamatory if it either directly or indirectly, in the estimation of others, lowers a person’s character. Truth is a defense only when a statement serves the public good.
Finally, the Court held that the penal code provisions are not disproportionate. The reasonableness and proportionality of a restriction is examined from the stand point of the interest of the general public, and not from the point of view of the person upon whom the restrictions are imposed. Therefore, the Court judged the criminal defamation laws to be proportionate. It further renounced the contention that defamation is fundamentally a conception of the majority meant to debilitate the freedom of speech and expression as too broad a proposition to be treated as a guiding principle to determine the reasonableness of a restriction.
Freedom of Speech and expression is undoubtedly very important but this right cannot be used to ruin the image or reputation of a person.
According to me, the Supreme Court has given a very balanced Judgement where the court tried to strike a balance between the two key rights i.e., the right to Reputation and the right to freedom of Speech and expression. Further striking down the provisions of criminal defamation would lead to social anarchy.
Edited by J. Madonna Jephi
Approved & Published – Sakshi Raje