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Tweet and Contempt of Court

One can exercise the right of Free speech and expression, but it does not give the right to scandalise the Court. With increasing internet connectivity, there has been an exponential growth in the total number of Social media usage. Twitter being one of such social media websites, has a huge user base. There are 18.9 million Indian users on Twitter. Due to its limited character policy, any posts published are targeted and focused.

Political figures, Journalists, and other influencers tend to give an opinion on Twitter. Several institutions are scrutinized and are made subject to various opinions thereto. Indian Courts are also subjected to such scrutinization and commentary. The author in the present article is focussing on such focussed and targeted opinions made for Courts and analyze, if it could lead to Contempt of Court.

Contempt Law in India
In India, The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 (hereinafter referred to as Act) provides for the Courtís power to punish the contemptuous and regulate procedures in such relation. The Act classifies the contemptuous act as Civil Contempt and Criminal Contempt.

Civil Contempt
The Act defines Civil Contempt as wilful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ, or other processes of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court. The purview of a Tweet amounting to Civil contempt is restricted to only those situations where there has been a wilful disobedience to any Judgement, decree, direction, order, writ or other such process. For illustration, if Court rules an injunction order against a person; restricting him to tweet certain matter. Contrary to the order, if such a person tweets, it will amount to Civil Contempt.

Criminal Contempt
The Act defines Criminal Contempt as the publication (whether by word, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which:
  1. Scandalizes or tends to scandalize, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court, or
  2. Prejudices or interferes or tends to interfere with the due course of any judicial proceeding, or
  3. Interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstruct or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.
From the above-given definition, the following essentials could be deduced:
  1. It should be published
  2. Scandalization or lowering the authority of the Court
  3. Such publication prejudice or interfere with the due course of any Judicial Proceeding
  4. Interferes with the Administration of Justice

Initiating the Contempt proceeding
In India, a contempt proceeding could be initiated by following manners:
  1. Suo-motto proceeding initiated by the Court itself.
  2. Proceeding initiated by the Attorney General itself.
  3. Any person initiating the proceeding after the permission of the Attorney General/Advocate General.
  4. Any law officer in relation to the Union Territory as specified by the Central Government.
As can be deduced, there are restrictions to file for the Contempt proceeding by any private person. These restrictions are put to save Courtís time from any frivolous complaints.

Twitter post amounting to Contempt
In past, the Supreme Court had set aside one order of Punjab and Haryana High Court, where the High Court convicted an advocate for one month's simple imprisonment for being critical at a High Court Judge on Facebook. The bench was headed by Justice Katju. Contrastingly, Justice Katju, after retiring, was tried for Contempt of Court for his blogpost criticizing the Supreme Court Judges. The said bench was headed by Justice Gogoi. It suggests that an online platform can be considered as a proper medium through which the act of Contempt of Court can be done.

Recently, the Supreme Court has recognized Social Media publication in the context of Contempt, which is inclusive of Twitter as well. Twitter publishes the content with the maximum character limit of 280. Any post made within the limit of 280 words, which scandalizes or lowers the authority of Court; or prejudice the due course of Judicial Proceeding; or interferes with the Administration of Justice will amount to Contempt of Court.

In Re Prashant Bhushan and Ors. Supreme Court, held Advocate Prashant Bhushan liable for the tweet he made in regards to the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice of India. Recently, an incident surfaced where, a stand-up comedian named Kunal Kamra, made several tweets in regards to the Supreme Court. Several Law students and advocates approached the Supreme Court to initiate a Contempt proceeding against Kunal Kamra. Attorney General (AG) KK Venugopal received multiple letters to permit the petitioners to initiate the contempt proceeding, the majority of which he permits.

Recently, one of a webcomic creators Rachita Taneja had been served with the contempt proceeding for her tweet, where she depicted Supreme Court as biased toward the Journalist Arnab Goswami. The court is yet to decide if such posting has scandalized the Institution.

In the United Kingdom, publicly commenting on a Court case on Social Media which could influence a Court case or interferes in the fair trial would lead to Contempt of the Court. Domini Griever, former attorney General of the United Kingdom, warned that publicly tweeting any opinion on Courts that satisfies the ingredient of Contempt; will lead to Contempt of Court. A Tweet made by billionaire Elon Musk once led to a Contempt proceeding against him, however, Court didnít put charges on him. Finally, it could fairly be concluded that a Tweet if satisfies the ingredient of Contempt; will lead to Contempt of Court.

Increasing internet connectivity and social media usage has a positive correlation. Twitter as a platform is used to convey targeted opinion. Courts often are subjected to numerous opinions. However, there is a difference between positive criticism and scandalizing of the Court. There are certain ingredients to be satisfied to conclude an act as a Contempt of Court. If Twitter is used to put any comment against the Judicial Institution which scandalizes the Court, or interferes with the Administration of Justice, it will lead to Criminal Contempt. However, to constitute Civil Contempt, such a tweet has to be in form of disobedience against the ruling of the Court.

Written By: Rohit Pradhan

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