The LexGaze Weekly - DECIPHER

Expression, Free Speech, Dissent: Where do we draw a line?

Arijit Sanyal

Issue 16 | October 04, 2020

Freedom of speech and expression is inviolable in democracies but so is human dignity and the sanctity of facts which cannot be side-lined for the misconceived idea of expression or dissent. When it comes to regulating the media and drawing a line between free speech and objectionable speech, a reference is usually made to constitutional provisions, considering the importance of free speech and expression and, any legislation, guidelines and rules whatsoever must conform to the same. The most basic idea of free speech is ingrained in the Constitution of India under Article 19(1)(a) which states, “All citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression.” A right essential for holding institutions accountable, it does not extend to making unfounded statements for the sake of furthering extraneous considerations [Radha Mohan Lal v. High Court (2003) 3 SCC 427]. However, even the higher judiciary has failed to regulate the institution which likes to call itself “self-regulated.”

It is believed that the obstacles existing in a nation, whether arising out of government decisions or other institutions, can be dealt with effectively by way of discourse. The higher judiciary has always guarded freedom of speech, in whichever form it has been identified viz, right to information [PUCL v. UOI (2003) 4 SCC 399], or even imposition of unfair regulations of newspapers leading to a rise in their prices [Sakal Papers v. UOI AIR 1962 SC 305]. While horizons of the constitution guarantee have been widened by the higher judiciary at every possible instance, it has not failed in its duty to reiterate that freedom is not as unrestricted against government institutions, though it might not be sufficient to hold the government accountable, it would lead to disorder and anarchy thereby affecting the democratic fabric under the misconception of protecting it [Devidas Ramachandra Tuljapurkar v. State of Maharashtra (2015) 6 SCC 1]. However, media trials, propagandas and unverified news sources have done more harm, and have risked the concept which it ought to protect.

Setting aside administrative and legislative undercurrents, considerable misconceptions regarding the reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2) have been responsible for the current state of the media. Article 19(2) talks about reasonable restrictions imposed on free speech if the matter falls within the purview of internal security, contempt of court, friendly relations with foreign states or sovereignty and integrity of India amongst others. Affirming the same, the court held through giving due consideration to healthcare should be the government’s top priority and information which can jeopardise national security cannot be disclosed [PUCL v. UOI (2004) 2 SCC 476]. However, even after the higher judiciary attempted to maintain the delicate balance between free speech and restrictions, the media played a greater role in its degeneration by running media trials and jeopardising matters which are sub judice, propagandas, objectionable content disregarding human dignity and privacy, which has made media regulations necessary.

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