Can Freedom of Speech be extended to the point where Contempt of Court is considered permissible?
Prashant Bhushan’s contempt of court case has attracted media attention since it started and has raged, in our country, a debate about free speech and the lack thereof. One thing I agree with is that there are draconian restrictions on free speech in our country (thanks to Nehru and the first amendment of our Constitution). We need to remove such ridiculous restrictions on free speech as soon as possible to truly ensure that our country becomes a true democracy, which has respect for the rule of law and freedom.
However, it was with great incredulity that I read the topic’s summary and the subsequent articles written under it, which essentially defended Bhushan’s statements as “freedom of speech”. Some even went on to say that the Supreme Court has become too defensive and is clamping down on free speech. And therefore, I want to pose this question to them: Can contempt of court or insulting the Supreme Court be regarded as free speech? Where do we draw the line?
Since the Supreme Court has found Bhushan’s tweets guilty of contempt of court, I cannot reproduce them verbatim here. However, the basic allegation in his tweets was that democracy has been destroyed in the last six years, and the Supreme Court has also played a role in this ‘destruction of democracy’ without even invoking a formal emergency. He also castigated four former CJIs for ‘their role’ in this destruction.
In another tweet, Bhushan tried to imply that CJI Bobde was gifted an expensive motorcycle by a BJP leader, a serious allegation without any proof. CJI Bobde is known for his love for motorcycles, and he had merely posed with a Harley Davidson motorcycle, a photograph of which went viral on social media. The Harley Davidson CVO 2020 was reportedly brought to him by a dealer for a demonstration. But Bhushan made serious allegations based only on the photograph.
Criticism of courts and specific judgments has always been permitted and has actually been upheld by the Supreme Court. However, these tweets and statements (one of them in which he accused the Supreme Court of corruption in an interview with Tehelka magazine in 2009) are clearly not mere criticism or ‘dissent’. By claiming that the Supreme Court has contributed towards the destruction of democracy with the government is quite obviously contempt of court.
‘Destroyed the democracy’ is a completely vague allegation, with no evidence of the same. Moreover, by blaming the last four CJIs for ‘their role’, Bhushan clearly alleged that they were somehow hand in glove with the Modi government, again without any proof. One can criticise specific judgements on their merits, but alleging that as many as four Chief Justices of India were in the payroll of the BJP without any proof is certainly serious contempt of court.
In fact, this is not the first time that Bhushan has insulted the Apex Court with scurrilous remarks, he is in fact a habitual offender, proof of which can be found here.
The most important thing that people also need to understand that Bhushan’s remarks have another, highly dangerous consequence. It encourages people to create disorder whenever a judgment comes contrary to their wishes; it encourages people to not respect judgments that are not in their favor. His tweets more or less imply that justice is not possible at the highest court of the land, and hence people must ‘create their own justice’ (read overthrow the government).
The crux of the matter is that Bhushan regularly tries to insult and intimidate the courts whenever he doesn’t get a verdict in his favour. Earlier this year, the apex court had rebuked Bhushan for ’regularly insulting’ the court and its judges. A Bench of the Supreme Court had noted that Bhushan regularly insults the judges and the court, and casts aspersions on them whenever he fails to get any relief.
If powerful lawyers such as Bhushan can accuse the Apex Court of corruption without any evidence, and get away with it, using the lame excuse of ‘freedom of speech’, then it would amount to intimidation of judges and would harm the Court’s ability to give judgments without fear or favor. In fact, even the liberals and so-called custodians of free speech who have come out in support of Bhushan, are not actually arguing to abolish contempt of court. In fact, they have even said that contempt of court rules should be strengthened.
Their sole motive is to defend Bhushan. They want to protect Bhushan’s rights, not everyone else’s. If it isn’t so, one wonders where these guardians of democracy vanish when a common citizen is accused of contempt of court and is punished for it, as indeed they have been, before Bhushan’s recent case.
We have a long way to go when it comes to matters of freedom of speech, and we must remove the nonsensical restrictions on Article 19 which stifle it. Valid criticism of the Supreme Court or its judgments is, was and should always be permissible (based on its merits). However, the Supreme Court must indeed have the power to punish people who are trying to undermine the legitimacy of the judiciary by holding and spreading contemptuous views about it without offering a sliver of evidence to support their views — be it Bhushan spreading his scandalous remarks, or anyone else. To claim that this is somehow ‘the destruction of free speech’ is ludicrous at worst, and ill-informed at best.