Defamation Law Constitutionally Valid, Freedom of Speech Not Absolute: Supreme Court

Cameras lined up before the Supreme Court waiting for the verdict of the day. Credit: Meeta Ahlawat

Credit: Meeta Ahlawat

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday upheld the Constitutional validity of penal provisions on the defamation law, observing that the right to freedom of speech is “not an absolute right”.

The bench passed the judgement on a batch of petitions filed by Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy and others.

“We have held that penal provisions are Constitutionally valid,” a bench comprising Justices Dipak Misra and Prafulla C. Pant said. “The right to freedom of speech and expression is not an absolute right,” the court said.

The bench directed magistrates across the country to be extremely careful when issuing summons on private complaints of defamation.

Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC, dealing with criminal defamation, and section 119 of the Code of Criminal Procedure are constitutionally valid, the court ruled. Section 500 deals with the provision of punishment for defamation which entails upto two years imprisonment, fine or both.

The bench said the stay of criminal proceedings granted in the trial court on the batch of petitions challenging the issue will continue for eight weeks, during which the petitioners can file their appeal before respective high courts for seeking relief in terms of today’s judgement.

After the verdict was pronounced, senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for Gandhi, said the Congress leader has to appear before a trial court on July 19 and the order granting stay of proceedings for eight weeks will not cover him.

Sibal wanted the stay to be extended till July 19 but the bench said he can seek relief by mentioning the matter in the month of July.

The Constitutional validity of penal laws on defamation was challenged on the ground that they are “outmoded” and inconsistent with the right to freedom of speech and expression.

The pleas had sought to set aside Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC and suggested that there is a need to decriminalise penal provisions for the offence of defamation.

Pitching for their retention in the statute book, the Centre had strongly batted for the laws on grounds including that they have stood the test of time.