‘Obnoxious’ speech does not call for heavy hand of the law 

News: Recently, the Delhi High Court conducted the bail hearing of Umar Khalid, an accused in the case related to the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. He was booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for his speech delivered at Amaravati which has been seen as being part of a “larger conspiracy” to destabilise the government. 

Observations made in the court 

The Delhi High Court highlighted several parts of the speech that it found “obnoxious” or “unacceptable”.  

First, an accusation of “jumla” against the prime minister was said to have crossed the “Lakshman Rekha” of free speech.  

Second, the court found the words “krantikari” and “inquilab” used by the accused unacceptable. 

Thirdly, another observation made by the Court was that Khalid is an “intelligent man” who used indirect speech to goad his audience to violence. 

What are the general exceptions to free speech? 

The first is hate speech, which is closely linked to discrimination and violence against vulnerable and marginalised groups. For example, in history, there was a close link between antisemitic speech and the economic and social boycott of the Jewish people, which eventually led to the Holocaust.  

The second is incitement to violence. This does not fall within the protection of free speech because it leaves neither the time nor the scope for response or reason. The incitement to violence leads an enraged mob to burn down a neighbourhood.  

Further, in addition to above, there are certain forms of religious offence that are also criminalised in India.  

Issues in the present case 

In the present case, the speech of the accused falls outside of the scope of the above said narrow exceptions. The statements picked in the court are well within the mainstream of Indian political discourse. For example, there is a “Revolutionary Socialist Party” in Parliament. 

Further, a person cannot deserve to be in jail for years without trial. The accused in the case has already spent more than 500 days in jail without trial. In a civilised society, people cannot be jailed for speech as a regular matter. 

In a civilized society, such kind of speech should attract counter-speech instead of the heavy hand of the state and the law-enforcement machinery to silence someone. 

The general criticism of the Prime Minister in the public domain does not go against fundamental right of freedom of speech. The remarks highlighted in the case should be seen as an example of an enthusiastic political speech involving satire, parody etc. 

The hearing of the case should be done on the tangible record of events i.e., things done and spoken, instead of intangible things like “intelligent man” and use of indirect speech to incite the violence. 

Source: The post is based on an article “Obnoxious speech does not call for heavy hand of the law” published in the Indian Express on 05th May 2022. 

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