Only criminal defamation can reasonably restrict free speech: Government

New Delhi, July 23 (IANS) The central government Thursday told the Supreme Court that for an orderly civil society, the penal provision of criminal defamation was integral to the reasonable restriction imposed by the constitution on the right to freedom of speech and expression it guaranteed.

Defending the Indian Penal Code’s sections 499 and 500 spelling out punishment for criminal defamation, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi told a bench of Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Prafulla C. Pant that the constitution framers have made them integral to constitution’s Aaticle 19(2) by way of reasonable restrictions and that being so, they were immune to any challenge.

He contended that the absence of sections 499 and 500, unbridled free speech would create an anarchic conditions.

“Would hurling of abuses be a part of the freedom of speech and expression in an orderly society,” asked Rohatgi, telling the court that it could not read down two sections.

In a query from the bench whether reports on a public figure in a live-in relationship would be criminal defamation, Rohatgi said: “I don’t think so.”

He however said that that if such a relationship is exposed, it may not be criminal offence but how it is in the public good.

“There may be a distinction between conduct in private and in public place,” he said.

Citing the speed, impact and permanency of social media, Rohatgi told the court that something that is said behind a closed door goes viral across the world on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in a split moment.

Gone are days when after reading a newspaper, one used to throw it or a programme once missed on TV can’t retrieved “but on social media it does not disappear. On Facebook it remain undeletable”, he said, noting the potential of a defamatory utterances on an individual.

In the interplay between the freedom of speech and protection of somebody’s reputation, some line has to be drawn, he said pointing to the widening of the scope of defamation law in last 150 years to encompass the reputation of companies, goods, and professional goodwill.

Nestle has a reputation but Maggi’s reputation has gone, Rohatgi said, adding that Nestle may still make good on the losses by claiming damages from the government but what can an individual do.

The court was told this in the course of the hearing of a batch of petitions by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal challenging the validity of sections 499 and 500 on the contention that they travel beyond article 19(2) imposing reasonable restriction on the freedom of speech and expression.

Hearing will continue on July 28.

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