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SC says - Criminal defamation ruling doesn't curb free speech

  • The Supreme Court of India has repeatedly dealt with the question of Constitutional validity of Section 499 and Section 500 of Indian Penal Code, which make defamation a criminal offence.
     
    While hearing the Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s petition seeking quashing of a criminal defamation case against him, the Court on tuesday said some people appeared to have misunderstood its judgment upholding the criminal defamation provision in the IPC and thought that their right to free speech had been curtailed.

     A bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra said, "Any criticism of someone does not make the speech a ground for launching criminal defamation proceedings under Sections 499 and 500 of Indian Penal Code."
     
    “What we said in our judgment, people must read and understand. It does not cripple or curtail right to free speech. What is curbed is defamatory speech. Every day a writer, politician, critic or an antagonist would make some statement or the other criticising someone or the government. That does not become defamatory. That is why we recently issued notice to the Tamil Nadu chief minister for filing defamation case against a person," the bench said referring to its July 25 order in DMDK leader Vijay Kant’s petition questioning the criminal defamation case against him for criticising the Jayalalithaa government."
     
    "The purpose of law is not to convert people into litigants. The purpose is to make people obey so that peace prevails and not unrest, harmony prevails and not anarchy."

    On May 13 a bench of Justices Misra and P C Pant had upheld the constitutional validity of criminal defamation provisions in the IPC drafted during the colonial era but had clarified that these provisions did not muzzle free speech. The validity of Sections 499 and 500 was challenged by politicians Rahul Gandhi, Subramanian Swamy, Arvind Kejriwal and many others who faced trial for making statements allegedly harming others' reputation.
     
    The Court said, “Bigger the stature of the person making the defamatory statement, the graver the offence.”

    “Right to free speech cannot mean that a citizen can defame the other. Protection of reputation is a fundamental right. It is also a human right. Cumulatively, it serves social interest... Each is entitled to dignity of person and of reputation. Nobody has a right to denigrate others' right to person or reputation,."
     

    OUR TAKE

    It is interesting to note that how Supreme Court has subtly defined what exactly constitute a defamatory statement and a criticism in this case. It has become a trend for politicians to take any criticism or remark to the Court, under the garb of defamation. During any elections, such defamatory are hurdled by the speakers, even abuses are exchanged. If all politician starts filing defamation case against each other, other important matters will get delayed further. If not complete removal of defamation law, the ambit of free speech must be broadened further.


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