SC: Judgments on Freedom of Speech and Expression

Freedom of speech vis-a-vis the Constitution of India

Freedom of speech is one of the 6 fundamental rights bestowed upon the citizens of India under Part III of the Constitution. It is one of the most significant aspects in the hierarchy of individual liberties preserved under Article 19 to Article 22 of the Indian Constitution.

Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution states that all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression. Yet this right is subject to limitations imposed under Article 19(2) which empowers the State to put ‘reasonable’ restriction on various grounds, namely, security of the State, friendly relations with Overseas States, public order, decency and morality, contempt of court, defamation, incitement of offence, and integrity and sovereignty of India.

Purpose of Freedom of speech and expression

  1. It helps an individual to achieve self- fulfillment
  2. It assists in the discovery and presentation of truth
  3. It increases the capacity of an individual to participate in the decision-making process
  4. It renders a mechanism by which it will be possible to inaugurate a reasonable balance between stability and social change.

Freedom of Silence- National Anthem Case

Freedom of speech also incorporate the right to silence. In a case, three children belonging to Jehovah’s witnesses were expelled from the school for refuting to sing the national anthem, although they stood respectfully when the national anthem was being sung. They challenged the validity of their expulsion before the Kerala High Court which decided the expulsion as valid and on the ground that it came under the domain of fundamental duty to sing the national anthem. On appeal, the SC held that the students did not commit any offence under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971. Also, there was no law under which their fundamental right under Article 19(1) (a) could be infringed.

Thus, it was held that the children’s expulsion from the school was a violation of their fundamental right under Article 19(1) (a), which also includes the freedom of silence.

Freedom of Speech and Sedition

Sedition, in India, is defined under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code as, “whoever by words either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation or otherwise brings into hatred or contempt or excite or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India shall be punished”.

In the recent case of Kanhaiya Kumar v. State of of Delhi7, students of Jawaharlal Nehru University arranged an event on the Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, who was hanged in 2013. The event was a protest through poem, art, and music against the death penalty of Afzal Guru. Allegations were made that the students in the protest were heard yelling anti-Indian slogans. A suit therefore filed against several students on charges of offence under Sections [124-A, 120-B, and 34].                        Click me to submit an article

Case Study

1.  Hamdard Dawakhana v. Union of India

The validity of the Drug and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisement) Act, which put restraints 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 on advertisement curtailed the freedom. The SC upheld that an advertisement is no doubt a form of speech but every advertisement was held to be dealing with commerce or trade and not for propagating ideas.

2. Indian Express Newspapers v. Union of India

The Court, in this case, observed that, Article 19 of the Indian Constitution does not use the phrase “freedom of press” in its language, but it is contained within Article 19(1) (a). There cannot be any intrusion with the freedom of press in the name of public interest. Aim of the press is to enhance public interest by publishing facts and opinions, without which a democratic electorate cannot take good decisions.

Similarly, imposition of pre-censorship of a journal, or prohibiting a newspaper from publishing its own views about any burning issue is a hindrance on the liberty of the press.

3. A. Abbas v. Union of India

The case is one of the 1st in which the issue of prior censorship of films under Article 19(2) came into consideration of the SC. Under the Cinematograph Act, 1952, films are parted into two categories- ‘U’ films for unrestricted exhibition, and ‘A’ films that can be manifested to adults only. The petitioner’s film was refused the ‘U’ certificate, and he challenged the validity of censorship as restraint of his fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. He contested that no other form of speech and expression was subject to such prior restraint, and therefore, he demanded equitable treatment with such forms. The Court, however, held that motion pictures are able to thrive emotions more deeply than any other form of art.

4. Bennet Coleman and Co. v. Union of India

In the facts of this case, the validity of the Newsprint Control Order was challenged. The Order fixed the maximum number of pages which a newspaper could publish, and this was said to be standing in contravention of Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution. The government contented that fixing the newsprint would help in the growth of small newspapers as well as prevent monopoly in the trade. It also justified its order of reduction of page level on the ground that big dailies provide a very high percentage of space to advertisements, and therefore, the cut in pages will not affect them. The Court held the newsprint policy to be an unreasonable restriction, and noticed that the policy curtailed the petitioner’s right of freedom of speech and expression. The Court also decided that the fixation of page limit will have a twofold effect- first, it will deprive the petitioners of their economic viability, and second, it shall restrict the freedom of expression as compulsorily reducing the page limit will lead to reduction of circulation and area of coverage for news and views.

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