Expanding Horizons of Freedom of Speech and Expression

Freedom of speech and expression comes with its pros and cons, cons being that not everything said by everyone is tolerated in public. The author jots down some recent incidents and discusses the status of this freedom of expression and where it is heading currently. Read along to know more!

We the people of India have bestowed upon ourselves with fundamental rights like freedom of speech and expression and duties to secure a healthy welfare state as intended by the framers of the Constitution. Even in the opening words of the Preamble, we have resolved to secure to all our citizens inter alia the liberty of thought, expression, belief etc.

This is succinctly captured in Part III of the Constitution that deals with the Fundamental Rights available to the citizens of India. Among the six freedoms guaranteed under Article 19, the primary one is the “Freedom of speech and expression” [Article 19(1) (a)].

As the title says day by day its ambit has increased manifold. Thanks to the active judiciary that has made this possible. Save, its action we would be people devoid of our basic rights akin to a life under a tyrant. In other words, Article 19(1) (a) has been put into action n true letter and spirit and judiciary. In Lowell v. Griffin[1]aUnited States Court has held that“the freedom of speech and expression means the right to express one’s own convictions and opinions freely by words of mouth, writing, printing, pictures or any other mode”.

In the past decades the Supreme Court of India, in several landmark cases has unfolded several other freedoms included under Art.19(1)(a). For example, in Indian Express Newspapers v. Union of India[2] the Apex Court held that “The expression ‘freedom of press’ has not been used in Article 19 but it is comprehended within Art. 19(1) (a)”.Interestingly, the freedom to remain silent is also a part of freedom of speech and expression as noted by the Supreme Court in the National Anthem case[3]. A question may arise whether the freedom of speech and expression is bound by geographical limitation? The Apex Court has answered this question in negative and held that this right surpasses all territorial limitations in the landmark case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India[4]. The list of freedoms as observed by the Apex Court is not exhaustive rather it is no exaggeration to underline the fact that the byproducts of this freedom are derived even today. Though the scope of this provision is expanded day by day, it doesn’t indicate that, this freedom can be arbitrarily exercised. Rather the freedom under Art. 19(1)(a) is subject to reasonable restrictions under Art. 19(2). The State can step into action in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

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Unfortunately this “restrictive proviso” has come as a blessing in disguise for the government to silence the voice of the critics. Among all, the irony to be noted is that in matters of freedom of speech and expression, with special reference to freedom of press India ranks 136 out of 180, according to a 2017 statistics by Reporters Without Borders[5], despite the explicit constitutional provisions mentioned supra. While we claim that Art. 19(1)(a) is getting a fresh lease of life every now and then by the judiciary, on the other hand, attack on those who exercise their right is also continuingunrestrained. The cold blooded murder of journalist GauriLankesh, which is still afresh in our memories says it all with reference to present scenario of Art. 19(1) (a). Her ‘expression’ on the condition of Naxals, dalits, farmers and the creeping influence of Hindutva in the country came with a heavy price. This also reminds us of M.M. Kalburgi, Panasare, Narendra Dabholkar who sacrificed their lives for exercising their fundamental right! It is indeed a huge blow to our Fundamental Right in toto. There is no use in vociferous campaigns for freedom of speech and expression unless and until stringent actions are taken against the perpetrators who harbor to defy the basic structures of our motherland. Till then, Art. 19(1) (a) will only be a ‘Mushroom topic’ that blooms only when it’s attacked, without any relevance to the modern day atrocities.

Also read Supreme Court Advocates-On-Record & Ors. v. Union of India

[1] (1939) 303 US 444

[2] (1985) 1 SCC 641

[3] Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala (1986) 3 SCC 615

[4] AIR 1978 SC 597

[5] 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without borders, (October 17, 2017,9:49 P.M.)https://rsf.org/en/ranking