In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court of India today upheld the constitutional validity of Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code to protect the individual’s right to reputation noting that it is extremely difficult to accept that criminal defamation has a chilling effect on freedom of speech and expression.
A Bench of Justices Dipak Misra and P.C. Pant observed in their judgment that right to free speech is not absolute. Reputation cannot be crucified at the altar of freedom of speech and expression.
“Free speech is sacrosanct. But right to life under Article 21 has its own significance as protection of individual rights form the fulcrum of a society. Courts have to strike a balance,”
the Court said.
The apex court further warned magistrates across the country to be “extremely careful” while deciding to issue summons on complaints alleging criminal defamation.
The Indian Penal Code makes defamation an offence punishable by up to a two-year jail term. Sections 499 and 500 in the IPC deal with criminal defamation. While the former defines the offence of defamation, the latter defines the punishment for it.
Section 499: Whoever, by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person, is said, except in the cases hereinafter expected, to defame that person.
Section 500: Whoever defames another shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
The court pointed that the right to freedom of speech was not absolute and it had to be balanced with the right to dignity and life. The right to speech did not mean the license to tarnish the reputation of others.
The judgment, authored by Justice Misra, said free speech should not rob a person’s individual right to go to court to protect his reputation.
The apex court held that Sections 499 and 500 provide the State ammunition to do its sworn duty to protect the dignity and reputation of its citizens.
The judgment came on a batch of petitions filed by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and media associations, among others, who argued extensively that criminal defamation, a colonial law, has a chilling effect on free speech and is being used by political rivals to gag criticism.
The judgment also casts a shadow of doubt over the free speech rights of the media in a democracy.
The judgment provide the petitioners facing criminal defamation trial a window of eight weeks to approach the High Courts concerned under Article 226 and Section 482 of the Criminal Procedure Code to quash the proceedings against them. For this purpose, the apex court has stayed the criminal proceedings against them for eight weeks.
The judgment falls in line with the Centre’s stand in the Supreme Court that criminal defamation offers “some deterrence” to people from maligning others whereas civil cases take over 20 years and “nobody cares”.
The petitioners had argued that the colonial Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC was an affront to article 19 (2) of the Constitution.
They had asked whether criminal defamation, which makes a person liable to prosecution and penal punishment, was necessary when defamation is considered a civil offence by countries across the world.
“We are not like other countries. Here you can file a civil suit and it will drag on for another 20 years. Nobody cares. In criminal defamation, there is some deterrence,”
the Centre had replied in an affidavit before the Supreme Court.
Incidentally, the two-judge Bench had refused the Centre’s repeated pleas during the court hearings to refer the question of constitutional validity of criminal defamation to a Constitution Bench and insisted on pronouncing the judgment itself.