N Ram, Prashant Bhushan, and Arun Shourie filed a petition challenging the constitutional validity of s.2(c)(i) of the Contempt of Courts Act 1971, which describes criminal contempt as any matter which ‘scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court’.
On 22 July 2020, the Supreme Court issued Prashant Bhushan with a notice referring to a contempt petition filed against him by a third party, which was subsequently converted into a suo moto petition. The contempt notice was based on two tweets authored by Mr. Bhushan: the first regarding the CJI riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and the second regarding Mr. Bhushan’s assessment of the role of the Court in the ‘destruction of democracy’. Mr. Bhushan then filed a preliminary response to this notice in the form of a Reply Affidavit, which was heard by the Court on 5 August 2020. On 6 August August, Mr. Bhushan submitted to the Court an application under s.17(5) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, which asked that he be allowed to submit more evidence if the Court intended to take the matter any further.
Mr. Bhushan is a public interest lawyer. On the 31st of July 2020, Mr. Bhushan along with Mr. N Ram and Mr. Arun Shourie filed a petition before the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of s.2(c)(i) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. Mr. Ram is a journalist and a former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, while Mr. Shourie is an economist, journalist, and a former Union Minister, as well as a Padma Bhushan recipient.
The three petitioners have all been involved in contempt cases in the past, and submit that they are ‘concerned’ about the ‘chilling effect’ of the relevant subsection on the freedom of speech as enshrined under Article 19(1) a) of the Constitution. They also make submissions as to the dangerous effect this has on the public and political life of citizens, as well as the importance of criticism in a functioning democracy. Their claim is based on several points, most significantly the vague and loose wording of the relevant subsection—'scandalising or lowering the authority of the court'—which they argue is susceptible to misuse, and cannot and should not be included under contempt of court as per Article 19(2).
The case was earlier listed before a bench of Justices Chandrachud and Joseph on 10 August 2020 but thereafter was deleted from the cause list. The Supreme Court Registry circulated a note stating that since another bench was hearing similar matters, the case challenging the constitutionality of criminal contempt was listed by mistake by the Registry before Justice Chandrachud's bench. The case came up on 13 August 2020 before a three-judge bench consisting of Justices Mishra, Gavai and Murari.
The Court dismissed the writ petition as 'withdrawn' and granted the petitioners' request for permission to file it before a High Court at a later stage.
1. Whether Section 2(c)(i) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 is unconstitutional as it violates Article 19 and is vague and arbitrary?