The Supreme Court upheld on Friday the constitutional validity of criminal defamation law, saying the right to free speech was not an absolute right. This means individuals and media organisations, including social media platforms, can be prosecuted for defaming someone.
A bench headed by justice Dipak Misra dismissed petitions filed by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Subramanian Swamy, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.
They had challenged the validity of sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code that penalises defamation.
HT explains what is defamation, the SC verdict and its implications.
What is defamation?
- Defamation means harming someone’s reputation by making a false and derogatory statement against him/her without any lawful justification.
- It can be by spoken words (slander) or written words (libel) or visual representation (posters/banners).
- To constitute defamation, publication of the alleged statement is a must.
- A single statement can give rise to both civil and criminal defamation.
- Criminal defamation is codified in the Indian Penal Code sections 499 and punishment of up to two years in jail is prescribed in Section 500 IPC.
- Intention to harm reputation is must for criminal defamation.
- Even truth is not a complete defence. It is imperative to prove that the alleged defamatory statement was made for public good.
What did the SC rule?
The apex court said there was nothing wrong with sections 499 and 500 of the IPC that prescribe a maximum two-year jail term and fine. Defamation is a reasonable restriction on free speech prescribed under the Constitution.
Why did it rule so?
The top court reasoned: “Right to free speech cannot mean that a citizen can defame the other. Protection of reputation is a fundamental right. It is also a human right. Cumulatively it serves the social interest.”
The SC also said: “One cannot be unmindful that right to freedom of speech and expression is a highly valued and cherished right but the Constitution conceives of reasonable restriction. In that context criminal defamation which is in existence in the form of Sections 499 and 500 IPC is not a restriction on free speech that can be characterized as disproportionate.”
What does the verdict mean?
The verdict does not change the legal position in India. It means individuals and media organisations, including social media platforms, would continue to be vulnerable to criminal defamation law as they can be prosecuted.
If convicted a person can be sent to jail for a maximum term of two years and can also be ordered to pay a fine. Besides, a defamed person can always drag the person defaming her/him to civil courts for damages. People can be held liable for defamatory statements on social media platforms too.
Swamy’s reaction on Twitter:
“This judgment though did not strike down criminal provisions serves our purpose to fight mad CMs and crazy politicians.”