The Supreme Court on 13 May 2016 upheld constitutional validity of penal laws on defamation. The two-judge bench of Justices Dipak Misra and Justice Prafulla C Pant said the right to life under Article 21 includes the right to reputation.
The apex court was hearing the matter based on 24 petitions alleging that the provisions of criminal sanction act as a censoring device, violates the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution. They argued that criminal defamation travels beyond the Constitution's article 19(2) that imposes reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression.
The petitions were filed by a number of politicians and public figures like BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, and media associations, among others.
Highlights of the Judgement
• It said that the current criminal defamation law is constitutionally valid.
• It held that criminalisation of defamation to protect individual dignity of life and reputation is a reasonable restriction on the fundamental right of free speech and expression.
• The court said that Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code make defamation a criminal offence. A person's right to freedom of speech has to be balanced with the other person's right to reputation and therefore the two Sections are necessary.
• The bench said that the freedom of right to speech and expression does not confer any right to a person to trample the reputation of others.
• It said that defaming a person amounts to offence against society and the government is entitled to lodge a case against a person under criminal defamation law.
• The bench in its 268-page verdict dismissed apprehensions and said that criminal defamation may have a chilling effect on the freedom to circulate one’s independent view.
• It held that deliberate injury to the reputation of an individual is not a mere private wrong, but it is a crime committed against society at large and the State has a duty to redress the hurt caused to its citizen’s dignity.
The court also directed magistrates across the country to observe extreme caution while issuing summons in private defamation complaints. The Supreme Court said interim protection will continue and criminal proceedings will remain stayed before trial court.
Quoting Sections 499 and 500 of Lord Macaulay’s Indian Penal Code (IPC) of 1860 said though free speech is a highly valued and cherished right, imprisonment is a proportionate punishment for defamatory remarks. Macaulay’s IPC prescribes two years’ imprisonment for a person found guilty of defamation won the court’s approbation.
Besides, the petitioners who are facing criminal defamation trial were given eight weeks time to approach the High Court’s concerned under Article 226 and Section 482 of the Cr.PC to quash the proceedings against them. For this purpose, the apex court has stayed the criminal proceedings against them for eight weeks.
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What: Upheld by Supreme Court
When: 13 May 2016