How Free Now? – SC did well to warn against further restrictions on free speech. But misuse of IPC provisions needs checking too

Source: The post is based on the following articles

“Why the Supreme Court is right to not curb ministers’ free speech” published in the Indian Express on 5th January 2023.

“How Free Now? – SC did well to warn against further restrictions on free speech. But misuse of IPC provisions needs checking too” published in The Times of India on 5th January 2023.

Syllabus: GS 2 – Indian Constitution—historical underpinnings, evolution, features, amendments, significant provisions and basic structure.

Relevance: About the SC ruling on Fundamental Rights.

News: Recently, the Supreme Court has ruled that Articles 19(1) (free speech) and 21 (right to life and personal liberty) can be enforced against private entities also and the state is bound to protect these rights, even when they are infringed by non-state actors.

What are the salient points in the recent SC ruling on Fundamental Rights?

-No more reasonable restrictions can be envisaged other than the eight existing ones for the fundamental rights in Article 19(2). These are sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court, defamation, and incitement to an offence.

-Individual statements of ministers were inadequate to invoke the collective responsibility of the cabinet. Like other citizens, Ministers are also guaranteed the right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1) (a), governed by the reasonable restrictions laid out in Article 19(2).

-The violation of constitutional rights and invoking constitutional tort for securing damages happens only when the Minister’s statement results in harm or losses to the complainant.

The court held that “the role of the court is to protect fundamental rights limited by lawful restrictions and not to protect restrictions and make the rights residual privileges.”

What are the implications of the SC ruling on Fundamental Rights?

-If the state brings a new law curbing free speech on grounds of public interest that cannot be located within eight “reasonable restrictions” can be struck down.

-Many ordinary citizens find their ways of life, privacy, choices and liberties constrained by dominant groups. Now, the court reminded the state to proceed against those vigilantes.

What should be done to improve free speech?

The judicial pronouncements are not able to fix the misuse of IPC provisions drawing their constitutionality from Article 19(2)’s reasonable restrictions. Further, the problem of hate speech is also not clearly addressed.

For hate speech, the will of governments and political consensus is required, especially when they involve one of their own. The message from those in the ruling party and its government needs to be firm and consistent.

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