The right to reputation is part of one of the most important fundamental rights to life and personal liberty and cannot be “crucified” for the freedom of speech and expression, the Supreme Court today said while upholding validity of 156-year-old penal laws on defamation.
Advocating the balancing between the rights to reputation and free speech, the bench of justices Dipak Misra and Prafulla C Pant said, “‘Reputation’ of one cannot be allowed to be crucified at the altar of the other’s right of free speech.
“The legislature in its wisdom has not thought it appropriate to abolish criminality of defamation in the obtaining social climate.”
Referring to various judgements of the Supreme Court and offshore judicial forum, the bench, in its 268-page verdict, did not agree to the fervent submissions that section 499 and 500 of the IPC (which deal with defamation”) has a “chilling effect on the right to freedom of speech and expression”.
“Once we have held that reputation of an individual is a basic element of Article 21 (right to life and personal liberty) of the Constitution and balancing of fundamental rights is a constitutional necessity and further the legislature in its wisdom has kept the penal provision alive, it is extremely difficult to subscribe to the view that criminal defamation has a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression,” it said.
Dealing with the ingredients of penal laws on defamation, which came into force in 1860, the bench said that the offence is not “beyond the boundary” of Article 19 (2) of the Constitution which deals with “reasonable restrictions” that put curbs on free speech.
“Therefore, in the ultimate conclusion, we come to hold that applying the doctrine of balancing of fundamental rights, existence of defamation as a criminal offence is not beyond the boundary of Article 19(2) of the Constitution, especially when the word “defamation” has been used in the Constitution,” it said.