Defamation is a criminal offence, confirms Supreme Court

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New Delhi: In a significant verdict, the Supreme Court on Friday ruled that the criminal provisions of defamation are constitutionally valid.

The ruling was delivered on a petition filed first by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician Subramanian Swamy against provisions criminalizing defamation.

The verdict will bring clarity to the interplay of free speech rights against defamation.

The Supreme Court said that it was difficult to consider criminal defamation has a chilling effect on speech. “Freedom of speech and expression is a highly treasured value… it’s sacrosanct but not absolute,” the court said.

Under sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), defamation is a criminal offence. Defamatory acts can include “words either spoken or intended to be read”, signs or visible representations, which are published or put up in the public domain.

The offence is punishable with up to 2 years imprisonment, fine or both.

A bench comprising justices Dipak Misra and P.C. Pant, while upholding the constitutional validity of the provisions criminalising defamation cautioned judges handling defamation cases to be “extremely careful while issuing summons”.

The court said that the reputation of a person is an integral part of the right to life granted under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

“Reputation cannot be allowed to (be nullified at the cost of) someone’s right to free speech,” the bench said in its judgment, read out by Misra in an open court.

During the hearings, the Union government opposed these petitions saying that there would be anarchy in society in the absence of these laws.

Attorney general Mukul Rohatgi argued that comparing India with other jurisdictions where there are no criminal sanctions for defamation would not be appropriate.

Aside from Swamy, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai, journalist Rajdeep Sardesai and news channel IBN7 were party to the case.

Earlier, the court had stayed summons issued to these people in various lower courts.

The court on Friday said that the stay in these cases would stand lifted as the law on criminal defamation was held valid.

However, the court has given a breathing space of eight weeks to these people to challenge their summons before the high courts.