Defamation as a Criminal Offence
Subramanian Swamy v Union of India
The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the criminal offence of defamation under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code.
In 2014, Dr. Subramanian Swamy made corruption allegations against Ms. Jayalathitha. In response, the Tamil Nadu State Government filed defamation cases against Dr. Swamy. Thereafter, Dr. Swamy and other prominent politicians challenged the constitutionality of the criminal defamation law in India, i.e., Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices Dipak Misra and P. C. Pant decided the case.
Section 499 defines defamation and Section 500 prescribes the punishment. Defamation is defined as spoken or written words or visible representations, concerning any person intended to harm his/her reputation. Exceptions to this include an ‘imputation of truth’ required for a ‘public good’, or the conduct of any person touching any public question, or expressing opinions on a public performance.
The challenge before the court was twofold – first, whether criminalising defamation is an excessive restriction on freedom of speech, and second, whether the criminal defamation law under Sections 499 and 500 is vaguely phrased and hence arbitrary.
On 13 May 2016, the Court held that Section 499 is not an excessive restriction under Article 19(2). It held that society is a collection of individuals, and what affects individuals also affects the society as a whole. Hence, it held that it is valid to treat defamation as a public wrong. It held that criminal defamation is not a disproportionate restriction on free speech, because protection of reputation is a fundamental right as well as a human right.
The Court relied on the judgments of other countries and reaffirmed the right to reputation as a part of the right to life under Article 21. Using the principle of ‘balancing of fundamental rights’, the court held that the right to freedom and speech and expression cannot be “allowed so much room that even reputation of an individual which is a constituent of Article 21 would have no entry into that area”.
Further, the Court held that Sections 499 and 500 IPC are not vaguely worded or ambiguous. Using the Constituent Assembly Debates to understand what the framers of the Constitution meant by the word “defamation” in Article 19(2), the Court held that the word is its own independent identity. It stands alone and defamation laws have to be understood as they were when the Constitution came into force.