Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression

The right to freedom of speech and expression as enshrined in the Constitution of India is the very foundation of democracy. It is the hallmark of liberty. The will of the man expressed is what democracy is all about and without it, there’s no essence to it. As J. Bhagwati observe, “Democracy is based essentially on free debate and open discussion, for that is the only corrective of government action in a democratic setup. If democracy means the government of people by the people, it is obvious that every citizen must be entitled to participate in the democratic process and in order to enable him to intelligently exercise his right of making a choice, free and general discussion of public matters is absolutely essential.”[1]

Free Speech is something that enables the citizens to keep a check on the vast powers of the State. It also gives them the right to be heard! Entitles the people to criticize the decisions of the government and sometimes participate in the same ensuring transparency in the functioning of the government. A right to an individual to speak his free will is what makes it important. But this must have restrictions on it as no liberty can be limitless. Liberties without boundaries are the gateway to chaos. Therefore Article 19 (2) lays down the restrictions that are to be maintained on freedom of speech and expression.

Article 19(2) enables the State to put some “reasonable restrictions” on the freedoms as enumerated under Article 19(1) (a) – (g). First and foremost it is the sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the Nation, Friendly relations with other states and public order. Although the above can be widely interpreted, there’s a thin line of difference between reasonableness and arbitrary action under these heads. The reason being, there are instances when the government tried to suppress these ideas and liberties out its own hunger for complete hold over power. The best example being the Emergency of 1975. It is hence; incumbent upon the courts to interpret the provisions of Constitution with such zealousness so as to protect the fundamental rights of the citizens as these pillars of justice are the guardians of the rights of citizens. One such instance where the Supreme Court emphasized “Freedom of Expression is a preferred right which is always very zealously guarded by this court” was in case of Odyssey[2].

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It is the duty of the State to ensure that these liberties stand and any threat to the freedom of speech is vexed. The restrictions stand only so far as they are in connection with the grounds mentioned. The Supreme Court has time and again said, “Our commitment of freedom of expression demands that it cannot be suppressed unless the situations created by allowing the freedom are pressing and the community interest is endangered. The anticipated danger should not be remote, conjectural, or farfetched. It should have a proximate and direct nexus with the expression. The fundamental freedom under Article 19 (1) (a) can be reasonably restricted only for the purposes mentioned in Article 19(2) and the restriction must be justified on the anvil of necessity and not the quicksand of convenience or expediency. Open criticism of government policies and operations is not a ground for restricting expression. We must practice tolerance to the views of others. Intolerance is as much dangerous to democracy as to the person himself.”[3]

Also read Online Hate Speech: Hateful Speech or Arbitrary Laws?

[1] Maneka Gandhi v. union of India, AIR 1978 SC 597 : (1978) 1 SCC 248

[2] Odyssey Communications Pvt. Ltd. v LokVidayanSanghatana, AIR 1988 SC 1642

[3] Rangarajan v P. JagjivanRam ,(1989) 2 SCC 574 : (1989) 2 SCR 204

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