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Supreme Court Judgments on Freedom of Speech and Expression

Fundamental rights refer to the first and most important human rights guaranteed to all citizens of India. These rights are applied without any kind of discrimination irrespective of race, religion, gender, or any other factor. In the framework of freedom law, on the other hand, fundamental rights denote a category of rights that are entitled to a strong level of protection against governmental encroachment.

Fundamental rights are usually explicitly mentioned in a constitution or have been determined through the precedent of legislative law. In summary, subsisting freedom aims at the protection of individual liberty and restraining democratic institutions according to the equality of all individuals in society. They are beneficial for each person's development in the country and work to protect the interests of the people. Ultimately, these rights are limitedly enforceable by the courts.

There are six fundamental rights mentioned in the Indian constitution:

  • Right to equality (Article 14-18)
  • Right to freedom (Article 19-22)
  • Right against exploitation (Article 23-24)
  • Right to freedom of religion (Articles 25-28)
  • Cultural and educational rights (Articles 29-30)
  • Right to constitutional remedies (Articles 32-35)

Freedom of speech and expression:

One of the Fundamental Rights "Right to Freedom� confirms the freedom of speech and expression which is the second fundamental right. Article 19(1)(a) In easy words: All citizens should have the right to freedom of speech and expression which means one can express their views and opinions freely.

Freedom of speech and expression is a basic fundamental right in India which allows one to have the right to the freedom of expressing his or her opinions, and ideas clearly without any retaliation, interference, censorship, or destruction, and also gives or guarantees the freedom to speak or write and not to speak or not to write. The statement believes in the preamble of the constitution which declares a solemn resolve to secure all citizen's liberty of thought and expression.

The following aspects are included in Article 19(1)(a):

  • Freedom of Press
  • Freedom of Commercial Speech
  • Right to Broadcast
  • Right to Information
  • Right to Criticize
  • Right to expression beyond national boundaries
  • Right not to speak or right to silence

Supreme Court judgments on freedom of speech and expression:

  1. Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras (1950):

    Petitioner Romesh Thappar Vs. Respondent The State Of Madras
    Date Of Judgment: 26/05/1950

    Bench: Saiyid Fazal Ali, Hiralal J. Kania, Mehr Chand Mahajan, B.K. Mukherjea, M. Patanjali Sastri, Sudhi Ranjan Das

    The individual who had requested the ban was also the creator, publisher, and editor of a journal called Cross Roads in Bombay, which was written in English. Under Section 9 (1-A) of the Madras Maintenance of Public Order Act, 1949, the Cross Roads journal was prohibited in the former State of Madras.

    To contest this ban, the individual filed a legal petition with the Supreme Court, arguing that the powers granted under the Act were too broad and infringed on the freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution of India.

    In response, the State contended that the restriction on the journal was necessary for public safety and maintaining public order. This was viewed as being consistent with protecting the State's security, which is deemed a reasonable limitation on freedom of expression under Article 19(2).

    Issues raised:
    • The court was tasked with determining whether the order issued under Section 9(1-A) of the Madras Maintenance of Public Order Act violated Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution or if it fell under the scope of Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
    • Does the petitioner have the right to approach the Supreme Court of India directly under Article 32 of the Constitution, without first approaching the respective High Court under Article 226?
    The Court, while ruling on the validity of the impugned order that banned the entry and circulation of the weekly magazine into certain parts of Madras, held that the freedom of speech and expression includes freedom of propagation of ideas that can only be ensured by circulation.

    The Court ruled that it was clear that the impugned order passed violated Article 19(1) (a) unless Section 9(1-A) of the impugned Act is saved by the reservation provided for in Article 19(2).

    During the hearing, the Advocate General of Madras objected to the petitioner directly approaching the Supreme Court of India for relief without following the proper procedure. The advocate general argued that the petitioner should have first approached the High Court of Madras for relief.
  2. In Bennett Coleman and Co. v. Union of India (1972):

    Petitioner Bennett Coleman & Co. & Ors. Vs. Respondent Union Of India & Ors.
    Date Of Judgment30/10/1972
    Bench: Chief Justice S.M. Sikri, and Justices A.N. Ray, P. Jaganmohan Reddy, H.M. Beg

    The petitioners were working as media conglomerates indulged in the publication of newspapers. The group of petitioners constitutionally challenged the restrictions imposed on the import of newsprint under "Import Control Order 1955� and this same manner has been applied by the newspapers under the Newsprint Order 1962. Further, in 1972-73 the validity of the import policy of Newsprint and Newsprint Control Order 1962, was constitutionally challenged.

    Issues raised:
    • The initial question was whether companies represented by the petitioners could violate fundamental rights.
    • Whether the restriction on newsprint import under the 1955 Order violated Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution?
    • Was the Newsprint Order, 1962, Clauses 3 and 3A violative of the Constitution's Article 14 and Article 19(1)(a)?
    The Supreme Court of India has ruled that the Newsprint Control Order, which limited the number of pages that could be printed, is unconstitutional. The court held that this order violated Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, and was not a reasonable restriction under Article 19(2). In addition, the order was found to violate Article 14, which guarantees the right to equality before the law.

    The majority decision, delivered by Justice Ray, stated that although the government has the authority to regulate newsprint imports in the event of a shortage, this should be done fairly and equitably, without violating the Constitution. The ruling emphasizes that the government must ensure that its policies are as per the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.  
  3. In Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India (1978):

    Petitioner Maneka Gandhi Vs. Respondent Union Of India And Other
    Date Of Judgment: January 25, 1978

    Bench: M.H. Beg, (C.J.), Y.V. Chandrachud, V.R. Krishna Iyer, P.N. Bhagwati, N.L. Untwalia, S. Murtaza Fazal Ali and P.S Kailasam.

    The petitioner (Maneka Gandhi) was a journalist whose passport was issued on June 1, 1976, under the Passports Act, of 1967. Later on July 2nd, 1977, the Regional Passport Officer, New Delhi, ordered the petitioner to surrender her passport by a letter posted. On being asked about the reasons for her passport confiscation, the Ministry of External Affairs declined to produce any reasons "in the interest of the general public.�

    Issues raised:
    • Is the "Right to Travel Abroad" protected under Article 21 as a fundamental right?
    • What is the connection between the rights under Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Constitution of India?

    The Supreme Court has ruled that freedom of speech and expression is not limited to national boundaries. Before the enactment of the Passports Act of 1967, there was no law regulating passports whenever an individual wished to leave their homeland and settle in another country. As the State had not enacted any laws regulating or prohibiting an individual's rights in such a scenario, the seizure of the petitioner's passport is a violation of Article 21.

    Additionally, since its grounds were unchallenged and arbitrary, it also violated Article 14 The statute has given unrestricted powers to the authorities in the present case, and therefore, the petitioner is not being discriminated against under Article 14. The ground for such power, which is "in the interests of the general public," is not vague and undefined. It is protected by certain guidelines that can be borrowed from Article 19.  
  4. In Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala (1986):

    Petitioner Bijoe Emmanuel & Ors. Vs. Respondent State Of Kerala & Ors.
    Date Of Judgment: 11/08/1986

    Bench: O. Chinnappa Reddy, M.M. Dutt

    The case is about three students, Bijoe Emmanuel and his two sisters, who were Jehovah's Witnesses - a religious group that believes in not participating in any activities that could be interpreted as an act of worship of any authority besides God. This includes singing the national anthem of a country. The students, who studied in a school in Kerala, refused to sing the national anthem, "Jana Gana Mana," during a school assembly.

    Their decision was based on their religious belief that singing the anthem amounted to an act of worship, which was against their faith. The parents of the students filed a writ petition in the Kerala High Court, challenging the school's decision and arguing that the expulsion violated their fundamental right to freedom of conscience and religion under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.

    Issues raised:
    Was the expulsion of three schoolchildren for refusing to sing the Indian national anthem consistent with their constitutional rights to freedom of expression and religion?

    The Supreme Court has upheld that the right to free speech includes the right to remain silent or not speak at all. In the judgment, the Court sided with a group of students and declared them not guilty.

    The Court ruled that the student's expulsion for refusing to salute the national flag and sing the national anthem was a violation of their fundamental right to freedom of conscience and religion, as stated in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.

    The Court emphasized that freedom of conscience and religion is a fundamental right, and the state should not interfere with an individual's beliefs and practices unless they pose a threat to public order, morality, or health.

It is reasonable to argue that the value of free expression is directly proportional to the extent to which citizens can exercise it. The right to free speech is a fundamental civil right and serves as the foundation upon which democratic governance is built. The democratic process needs to function effectively and allow every person to freely express themselves and articulate their views. Speech is essential because it enables individuals to communicate their ideas, feelings, and sentiments to others. It is a natural right that every human being receives at birth, and as a result, no individual should be deprived of this fundamental right to free speech.

In conclusion, the right to freedom of speech and expression is a cornerstone of individual liberty and societal progress and is critical for a vibrant democracy. The Constitution's provisions for the protection of life, personal liberty, and education further underscore its commitment to ensuring the dignity and welfare of all citizens. As India continues its journey towards progress and inclusivity, the principles of freedom embodied in these articles remain essential guides for shaping a fair, democratic, and compassionate society.

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