Freedom of speech and expression not an absolute right, says SC

New Delhi : The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that though the freedom of speech and expression provided in constitution under the fundamental rights has to be given a broad canvas but it was not absolute right.

“Freedom of speech and expression has to be given a broad canvas, but it has to have inherent limitations which are permissible within the constitutional parameters,” said a bench of Justices Dipak Misra and Prafulla C. Pant in their judgment.

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“We have already opined that freedom of speech and expression as enshrined under article 19(1)(a) of the constitution is not absolute in view of Article 19(2) of the constitution.”

Speaking for the bench, Justice Misra said: “We reiterate the said right is a right of great value and transcends and with the passage of time and growth of culture, it has to pave the path of ascendancy, but it cannot be put in the compartment of absoluteness. There is constitutional limitation attached to it.”

The court’s ruling came while discharging bank official Devidas Ramachandra Tuljapurkar who faced criminal proceedings for carrying in a bank journal a satirical poem centring on Mahatma Gandhi in which it was alleged obscene language was used. The poem was authored by Vasant Dattatray Gujjar. While discharging Tuljapurkar, the apex court noted that he had apologised for publishing the controversial poem.

In the context of obscenity, the provision enshrined under the Indian Penal Code’s section 292 (sale, etc., of obscene books, etc.) has its room to play, the court said, adding: “We have already opined that by bringing in a historically respected personality to the arena of section 292 IPC, neither a new offence is created nor an ingredient is interpreted.”

The judicially evolved test, that is, “contemporary community standards test” is a parameter for adjudging obscenity, and in that context, the words used or spoken by a historically respected personality is a medium of communication through a poem or write-up or other form of artistic work gets signification, the court said.

Patit Pawan Sanghtan had filed the complaint in 1994 both against the publisher and the author of the poem. Though both were absolved of charge of creating enmity between different sections but both the trial court and the Bombay High Court declined to unsaddle them of the obscenity charge.

Tuljapurkar had moved the apex court in 2010 and it stayed all the proceedings against him July 7, 2010. Gujjar did not challenge the high court order declining to quash obscenity charge against him.