Daily Current Affairrs Update: 21 JAN 2023

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Supreme Court on Freedom of Speech of Ministers

  • Recently, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court unanimously and rightly ruled out any additional curbs on free speech by ministers.
  • The case (Kaushal Kishor v the State of UP), relates to the Bulandshahar rape incident of 2016, in which the then Minister of the State termed the incident a ‘political conspiracy and nothing else’.
  • A writ petition was filed by the survivors before the SC and the court raised an important question: “Can restrictions be imposed on a public functionary's freedom of speech and expression?”.

What is the Judgement of the Court?

Majority Judgement:

On Reasonable Restrictions:

  • Like other citizens, ministers are guaranteed the right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1) (a), governed by the reasonable restrictions laid out in Article 19(2) — and those are enough.
  • Because “The role of the court is to protect fundamental rights limited by lawful restrictions and not to protect restrictions and make the rights residual privileges.”

On Collective Responsibility:

  • The majority ruling also made a valid distinction on the government’s vicarious responsibility for ill-judged or hateful remarks made by its individual ministers.
  • It is not possible to extend the concept of collective responsibility to “any and every statement orally made by a Minister outside the House of the People/Legislative Assembly”.

Statement by an Individual Minister:

    • The court also addressed the question of whether the statement of a minister, that is inconsistent with the fundamental rights of citizens, can result in a constitutional tort.
    • A mere statement by a minister that goes against an individual’s fundamental rights may not be actionable, but becomes actionable if it results in actual harm or loss.

Dissenting Judgement:

Over a Hateful Public Discourse:

  • The minority judgment expresses concern over a hateful public discourse - “hate speech, whatever its content, denies people dignity”.
  • It speaks of the special duty of public functionaries and other persons of influence to be more responsible and restrained in their speech, to “understand and measure their words”.

On Collective Responsibility:

  • It is possible to attribute vicarious responsibility to the government if a minister’s view represents that of the government and is related to the affairs of the state.
  • If such a statement is not consistent with the view of the Government, then it is attributable to the Minister personally.

Statement by an Individual Minister:

  • It holds the view that there should be a proper legal framework to define acts and omissions that amount to ‘constitutional tort’.

What is Article 19?

(1) All citizens shall have the right—

      (a) to freedom of speech and expression;

      (b) to assemble peaceably and without arms;

      (c) to form associations or unions;

      (d) to move freely throughout the territory of India;

      (e) to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India;

      (g) to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business.

  • (2) Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests 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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