SC upholds defamation law; Penal provisions held valid

Chennai: Congress vice President Rahul Gandhi waves at an election rally ahead of Tamil Nadu legislative assembly elections, in Chennai on Saturday. PTI Photo

Observing that the Right to Freedom of speech is “not an absolute right”, the Supreme Court on Friday upheld the constitutional validity of penal provisions on defamation law. The top court bench passed the judgement on a batch of petitions filed by Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy and others.

“We have held that penal provisions are constitutionally valid… The right to freedom of speech and expression is not an absolute right,” a bench comprising Justices Dipak Misra and Prafulla C Pant said.

The bench, however, directed magistrates across the country to be extremely careful in issuing summons on private complaints on defamation.

Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC, dealing with the criminal defamation, and section 119 of the Code of Criminal Procedure are constitutionally valid, the court ruled. Section 500 deals with the provision of punishment for defamation which entails upto two years imprisonment or fine or both.

FILE: New Delhi: File photo of BJP leader Subramanian Swamy addressing to media outside Patiala house court in New Delhi. File Photo - PTI

The bench said the stay of criminal proceedings granted by it in the trial court on the batch of petitions challenging the issue of summons will continue for eight weeks, during which the petitioners can file their appeal before respective High Courts for seeking reliefs in terms of today’s judgement.

The constitutional validity of penal laws on defamation was challenged on the ground that they are “outmoded” and inconsistent with right to freedom of speech and expression.

The pleas had sought setting aside of sections 499 and 500 (defamation) of the IPC and suggested that there is a need to decriminalise penal provision for offence of defamation. Pitching for their retention in the statute book, the Centre had strongly batted for the laws on grounds including that they have stood the test of time.

The bench observed, “Difficult to perceive that provision on criminal defamation has chilling effect on right to freedom of speech and expression,” adding that a “person’s right to freedom of speech has to be balanced with the other person’s right to reputation.”

Rahul Gandhi and Subramanian Swamy have been charged with criminal defamation under sections 499 and 500 of the IPC for their political speeches made in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra respectively, while Kejriwal is facing cases under the same provisions lodged by BJP’s Nitin Gadkari and others.