Free Speech vs. Contempt of Court: A Face Off

25 Nov 2020  Read 612 Views

Ever heard of someone being charged with a fine of Re.1? Sounds surreal but is true! One of the most eminent advocates of our country- Mr. Prashant Bhushan was asked to pay it. Well, it was just the matter of a tweet which was made by the renowned advocate about the Chief Justice of India, accompanied by a picture where he could be seen on a bike. (That picture went pretty viral, in case you aren’t aware) and ultimately landed Mr. Bhushan in a lot of trouble because not only it amounted to ‘contempt of court’ but it also invoked the concept of ‘freedom of speech’.

Freedom of Speech Under the Constitution

Knowingly-unknowingly we use ‘freedom of speech’ as a shield, a validation in our daily lives, but what does it actually mean? Article 19(1)(a) sums it up in approx 10 words i.e. “all citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression” but the scope that it carries is much wider than that.

It includes the right of every citizen to express their views and opinions without any hesitation, not only through words but also through pictures, movies, banners, etc. Remember the cartoon and artistic representation of one’s views? That’s also covered under freedom of speech and expression, and so you would have come across a few headlines where cartoonists had gotten arrested for printing cartoons offensive to the judiciary or even the legislature.

Hence, the significance can be measured by the fact that it is because of this article that citizens of this country can participate in the political and social matters of the country and that’s the reason behind the smooth administration of democracy. Had it not been there in practice, our country would have witnessed an autocratic rule by now (and none wants Hitler’s rule back). Freedom of speech also confers the freedom of the press and that is the reason why we see those starling journals and clamorous journalists on the television.

But does that mean, citizens are allowed to do anything in the name of freedom of speech? Thankfully, the answer is ‘no’! In a lot of countries, this right comes with some sort of censorship, so is the case with India. Most of these censorship is related to hate speech, defaming statements, maintaining the public order, national sovereignty etc. One of these elements is contempt of court.

Understanding Contempt of Court

Contempt of court’, the term sounds familiar, right? Contempt of court is a concept and not just related to the courts but extends to other institutions like parliament. Any act which appears to be disorderly or impolite towards the court of law or its officer whether, in terms of behaviour opposing the authority, justice, or dignity of the court amounts to an offence and is called ‘contempt of court’.

An interesting fact is that one of the powers of the judge is to impose sanctions for such acts that distort the normal functioning of the court. Just like the suits, contempt is also categorised into Civil and Criminal. If a person deliberately acts to be disobedient to any judgment, decree, order writ, etc or does any wilful breach of an undertaking given to the court, it is called civil contempt.

On the other hand, if a person publishes any word, sign, visible representation, etc of which comes out as something that scandalizes or amounts to let's fall the image of any court, or prejudices or impedes with the due functioning of the judiciary or interferes or obstruct the administration of justice in any other manner, then that amounts to criminal contempt.

So, a citizen, on one hand, possesses the right to express his or her views without any sort of hindrance and on the other, being subject to such correspondence that can amount to contempt of court. Quite contrasting, isn’t it?

While freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right, it comes with reasonable restrictions and these rights are not absolute in nature. In addition to that, the right to freedom of speech also includes the right to fairly criticize in good faith but this right is intimidated when a person is charged under criminal contempt of court as provided under the Contempt of Court Act 1971.

The other point to remember is, even though it is an inherent power given to the court, it cannot punish a person with contempt unless and until the court is satisfied of the fact that there existed some kind of obstruction in administering justice and where the person that was charged with the contempt justifies his acts.

In the aforementioned case of Mr. Bhushan, he was made to pay the fine because of a petition filed against him and his tweets for being ‘scandalising’ in nature and inspiring ‘no confidence’ motion. The respected court took cognisance of the matter and initiated contempt proceedings against him and found him guilty.

It’s quite clear that Mr. Bhushan being a citizen of this country believed to be acting under the fundamental right conferred by Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution but some of the words in his tweets seemed ‘derogatory’ to the office of the Chief Justice and to other members of the judiciary as well.

The proceedings were held to be lawful and under the ambit of an established procedure. Mr.Bhushan not only had a right to express his views and opinion freely but also had a responsibility to remain within the confines of the reasonable restrictions and above all, offer the office of the Chief Justice of India the respect it deserves.


Therefore, it is never the question of freedom of speech vs contempt of court, because the right comes with certain reasonable restrictions and contempt is one of them. One can question that these restrictions mentioned under clause 2 to 6 of Article 19 are so extensive that it limits clause 1 itself, but they were included with the sole aim of maintaining the balance of the constitutional machinery because too much power can prove to be dangerous at times.

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