Human Rights Supreme Court of India

On Shreya Singhal: Section 66A is too broad, vague, and will chill free speech

GautamBhatia_SupremeCourtofIndiajpgIn the second half of December 2014, the Supreme Court began to hear a series of challenges to various provisions of the Information Technology Act of 2008 (“IT Act”). Hearings will commence again when the Court reopens in January after the winter break. The batch of petitions, clubbed under Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, impugn – inter alia – the constitutional validity of Section 66A of the IT Act.

Section 66A has attained a degree of notoriety in recent times, having been used to arrest people for posting (and liking) Facebook comments, for critical political speech, and so on. Section 66A is largely borrowed from the English Communications Act (the scope of which has been severely curtailed after allegations of abuse), and was originally intended to tackle spam and online harassment. It hardly bears repeating that its implementation has gone far beyond its objective. Beyond poor implementation, however, there is a strong case for the Court to hold at least part of Section 66A unconstitutional, on the ground that it violates the freedom of speech guarantee under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

Among other things, Section 66A criminalises the sending, by a computer resource or a communication device, any information that is “grossly offensive” or has a “menacing character” (S. 66A(a)), as well as the sending of “any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience.” The components of the offence, therefore, include online speech that is “grossly offensive”, “menacing”, or causes “annoyance” or “inconvenience”.

Legitimate restrictions permitted on the fundamental right in Article 19(1)(a)

The State’s authority to legitimately restrict speech can be sourced to Article 19(2) of the Constitution, which allows for the State to impose, by law, “reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.” S. 66A’s restrictions might be connected with three of these concepts: public order, decency or morality, and defamation.

In a series of cases, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the connection between “public order” and a free speech restriction ought to be proximate, like that of a “spark in a powder keg”, and not far-fetched or remote. Clearly, while certain forms of offensive or menacing speech might, at some point, lead to a public order disturbance, the connection is anything but proximate. Similarly, the “decency and morality” prong has been invoked to deal with cases of obscenity, where the offending work appeals solely to the prurient interest, as seen from the point of view of the reasonable, strong-minded person. And lastly, the ingredients of defamation are highly specific, and much narrower than causing offence or annoyance – they are limited to lowering the reputation of the plaintiff in society (subject to certain defences).

Over-breadth and disproportionate restrictions

IMediaLawst is therefore clear that certain terms of Section 66A suffer from the vice of “overbreadth”, that is, they authorise the restriction of expression that the government is entitled to prohibit, as well as that which it is not. In Chintaman Rao v. State of Madhya Pradesh, the Supreme Court, while striking down certain restrictions on agricultural labour under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution, held that “the law even to the extent that it could be said to authorize the imposition of restrictions in regard to agricultural labour cannot be held valid because the language employed is wide enough to cover restrictions both within and without the limits of constitutionally permissible legislative action affecting the right. So long as the possibility of its being applied for purposes not sanctioned by the Constitution cannot be ruled out, it must be held to be wholly void.” In other words, as far as fundamental rights are concerned, over-breadth is constitutionally fatal to a statute. This conclusion is further buttressed by the fact that in State of Madras v. V.G. Row, the Supreme Court also held that a “reasonable restriction” under Articles 19(2) to (6) would have to satisfy the requirements of proportionality: “the nature of the right alleged to have been infringed, the underlying purpose of the restrictions imposed, the extent and urgency of the evil sought to be remedied thereby, the disproportion of the imposition, the prevailing conditions at the time, should all enter into the judicial verdict.” Proportionality and over-breadth are closely linked: if a statute proscribes conduct that is much broader than what is permitted under Article 19(2), on the ground that there is some – tenuous – connection between the two, there is good reason to argue that the restriction is disproportionate.


In addition to over-breadth, the provisions of Section 66A suffer from an additional problem: that of vagueness. “Menacing”, “annoyance”, “inconvenience” and “grossly offensive” are all highly subjective, and open to numerous varying interpretations depending upon individual and diverse standpoints. Their scope and boundary are both large and ill defined. Consequently, they create a zone of uncertainty for Internet users. What kind of speech might land you in trouble? It is hard to tell.

Vagueness is constitutionally problematic. In Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab, the Supreme Court – citing American precedent – observed that “it is the basic principle of legal jurisprudence that an enactment is void for vagueness if its prohibitions are not clearly defined. Vague laws offend several important values… laws should give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly. Vague laws may trap the innocent by not providing fair warning. Such a law impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen and also judges for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application.” Thus, the twin problems of uncertainty and impermissible delegation to the executive, are inextricably connected with vague statutes.

Image is from Tyler Menezes’ photostream on Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Vague and over-broad statutes are especially problematic when it comes to free speech, because of the chilling effect that they cast upon speech. As the Court put it in Kartar Singh, “uncertain and undefined words deployed inevitably lead citizens to “steer far wider of the unlawful zone … than if the boundaries of the forbidden areas were clearly marked”.” When faced with uncertain, speech-restricting statutes, citizens are likely to self-censor, in order to ensure that they steer well clear of the prohibited line.

In the Shreya Singhal petitions, the Supreme Court will be faced with the choice of striking down Section 66A, or reading it down and (perhaps) issuing guidelines aimed at checking abuse. There is no doubt that the objectives of preventing scam and protecting Internet users against cyber-harassment and online bullying are important. But there are other parts of Section 66 that can be used to curtail such activities. If the Court is not minded to strike down Section 66A in its entirety, it ought to at least sever the words that have the greatest and most unbounded catchment area, and are most prone to abuse, and excise them from the statute.

(Gautam Bhatia blogs at Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy.)

Supreme Court of India

Supreme Court correctly holds National Tax Tribunal unconstitutional but should ordinary law be tested against basic structure and constitutional convention?

GautamBhatia_SupremeCourtofIndiajpgIn a landmark judgment last week – Madras Bar Association v. Union of India – a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court held unconstitutional, the National Tax Tribunal Act, 2005. The majority opinion runs into 230 pages and deals with a host of complicated statutory and constitutional provisions. Briefly, the National Tax Tribunal Act provided for the constitution of a National Tax Tribunal (“NTT”), which had the power to adjudicate appeals from various appellate tribunals (constituted under the Income Tax Act, the Customs Act, and the Central Excise Act), where such appeals involved a substantial question of law. Before this, such appeals were heard by the jurisdictional high courts. The idea behind the NTT was to create a single forum for the hearing of tax appeals, in order to provide the uniformity and consistency that was lacking in the law because of the conflicting decisions of the various high courts.

The petitioners challenged the NTT Act on four grounds: first, that the reasons for setting up the NTT were fallacious, since there were no problems of consistency in the present jurisprudence of the high courts; secondly, deciding upon a substantial question of law was a “core judicial appellate function”, which could not be transferred to a quasi-judicial authority that lacked the basic features of a superior court; thirdly, that the enabling constitutional provision, Article 323B, inserted into the Constitution via the 42nd Amendment, violated the basic features of the Constitution (such as the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the independence of the judiciary); and fourthly, certain specific provisions of the NTT Act undermined the independence of the judiciary, and were therefore liable to be struck down. In short, the Court accepted the second and fourth contentions, while upholding the validity of Article 323B.

Chief Justice R.M. Lodha and Justices Khehar, Chelameshwar, Sikri, and Nariman comprised the bench.
Chief Justice R.M. Lodha and Justices Khehar, Chelameshwar, Sikri, and Nariman comprised the bench.

Examining the line of Tribunals CasesSampath Kumar, Chandra Kumar and Union of India v. Madras Bar Association, the Court concluded that it was settled law that judicial review in general – and the High Courts’ power to exercise judicial superintendence over the courts and tribunals in their respective jurisdictions in particular – was part of the basic structure of the Constitution. While the Parliament was competent to enact a law transferring the jurisdiction of the High Court with respect to specific subjects to other courts or tribunals, what it could not do was to transfer the constitutionally-vested power of the High Courts elsewhere. The NTT Act – the Court found – transferred only jurisdiction, and not the High Courts’ powers of superintendence under Articles 226 and 227 of the Constitution. Accordingly, the Court held that the NTT Act did not violate the basic structure.

We may pause here to notice a controversial assumption that the Court only touches upon: that ordinary legislation is subject to a basic structure challenge. From the inception of the basic structure doctrine, it has been a contested issue whether that doctrine applies only to constitutional amendments, or to ordinary laws as well. For instance, in Union of India v. R. Gandhi, a judgment handed down by a coordinate bench just four years ago, it had been found that ordinary laws could be challenged only upon the touchstone of the Constitution, and not the basic structure. In holding otherwise, without referring to prior doctrine, the Court further muddied an already confused area of law.

Transfer of adjudicatory functions and guarantees of judicial independence

The Court then turned to the issue of transfer of adjudicatory functions. In what is perhaps the most interesting part of the judgment, it noted cases from across commonwealth jurisdictions – Canada, England, and the Privy Council – to hold that in constitutions based on the “Westminster model of governance”, there was a clear demarcation of functions between the executive and the judiciary, with the two being kept independent of each other. This independence was guaranteed through provisions regulating the appointment and security of the tenure of judges. Consequently, adjudicatory powers could be transferred from traditional courts only if the forums that they were being transferred to had analogous guarantees of independence. This was the only way in which the scheme of separation of powers could be maintained. Constitutionally, this proposition was supported by the L. Chandra Kumar judgment, and its insistence that the transfer of jurisdiction must be to a forum that embodies the salient features of the court from which the transfer is taking place.

Facebook Images-470x246Having established this, the Court then turned to the specific provisions of the NTT Act. It found that the establishment of a central tribunal (with no regional benches), the power of the central government to determine the constitution of benches and the transfer of members, the provision allowing “technical members” and “accountant members” to be appointed to the tribunal (to adjudicate substantial questions of law), the provision of a direct appeal to the Supreme Court (thus bypassing the jurisdictional High Courts) – all pointed to the fact that while the composition of the NTT was supposed to be on the same parameters as that of the judges of high courts (since, effectively, the NTT was acting as a substitute for the High Court), in practice, this was not so. Consequently, the Court held, in paragraph 90:

Sections 5, 6, 7, 8 and 13 of the NTT Act have been held by us (to the extent indicated hereinabove) to be illegal and unconstitutional on the basis of the parameters laid down by decisions of constitutional benches of this Court and on the basis of recognized constitutional conventions referable to constitutions framed on the Westminster model. In the absence of the aforesaid provisions which have been held to be unconstitutional, the remaining provisions have been rendered otiose and worthless, and as such, the provisions of the NTT Act, as a whole, are hereby set aside.”

 What is curious about this paragraph is its reliance upon constitutional conventions to strike down legislation. This is surely a first! Constitutional conventions are – as the term suggests – conventions, that is, practices that have acquired strong normative and binding force because of a long period of consistent adherence. To hold a convention to be legally enforceable is a category mistake – what distinguishes constitutional provisions from constitutional conventions is precisely their legal standing. As the reasoning above demonstrates, the Court had no need to resort to conventions: the reasoning in the Tribunals Cases was enough for it to hold that a transfer of jurisdiction must be to a forum with the relevant trappings of a court. In the alternative, if it was of a mind to invoke the Westminster constitutional model, it could simply have held that the independence of the judiciary was a structural feature of a Westminster Constitution (as, incidentally, was held in some of the cases that the Court cited from abroad, none of which relied upon conventions). Structural analysis, that is, inferring constitutional obligations not directly from the constitutional text, but by way of necessary implications from its overall scheme and structure – is an accepted form of constitutional adjudication, widely prevalent in the United States, and – although controversial, most famously in Kesavananda Bharati – used in India as well, on occasion (see, for instance, the Delhi High Court’s finding of the word “sex” in Article 15 including “sexual orientation”). In holding constitutional conventions to be legally enforceable, the Court has – with respect – created an entirely unnecessary minefield for the future.

In a brief and pithy concurring opinion, Justice Nariman decided the case on the narrow ground that the legislature was not permitted to divest superior courts of record from the core judicial function of deciding substantial questions of law. He relied upon Chandra Kumar, which had clearly held that tribunals are competent to hear matters where the vires of statutory provisions are questioned. However, in discharging this duty, they cannot act as substitutes for the High Courts and the Supreme Court which have, under our constitutional set-up, been specifically entrusted with such an obligation. Their function in this respect is only supplementary and all such decisions of the Tribunals will be subject to scrutiny before a Division Bench of the respective High Courts.In supplanting the scrutiny of the High Court, the Act bypassed its constitutionally guaranteed power under Article 227, as well as falling foul of Chandra Kumar.

Madras Bar Association v. Union of India is correctly decided. Its holding, that the adjudication of substantial questions of law cannot be transferred to tribunals that lack the substantive trappings of the High Court, is clearly consistent with Chandra Kumar, Article 227 of the Constitution, and the structural foundations of the Westminster Model. In simultaneously holding that ordinary laws can be subjected to a basic structure challenge, and that constitutional conventions can be used to strike down an otherwise validly enacted law, the Supreme Court has, however, ventured into uncertain territory. It remains to be seen what implications this will have for the future.

(Gautam Bhatia blogs at Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy.)

Supreme Court of India

Rigorous scrutiny of process of distributing natural resources: “Coalgate” judgment advances Supreme Court jurisprudence

GautamBhatia_SupremeCourtofIndiajpgIn a landmark judgment last week, the Supreme Court held that the central government’s allocation of coal blocks to public and private companies during the seventeen years between 1993 and 2010 was illegal and ultra vires the Constitution. The coal block allocation scam, popularly known as “Coalgate”, came to the forefront of the political and legal landscape when a 2012 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (“CAG”) accused the government of causing huge losses (Rs. 1.86 lakh crore) to the public exchequer in its coal allocations. The same year, M.L. Sharma and Common Cause separately filed petitions before the Supreme Court, challenging the allocation. The petitions were clubbed together and heard jointly by the Court, which delivered its judgment last Tuesday. The political and economic ramifications of Manohar Lal Sharma v. The Principal Secretary (“Coalgate”) are already being felt. The judgment is also of great interest because of its significant contribution to one of the most important constitutional issues in contemporary India: the judicial review of the government’s distribution of natural resources.

The Spectrum Cases – the Supreme Court’s scrutiny of process and policy

In a previous post here, I had discussed the Supreme Court’s opinions in the “2G Spectrum Cases”. In the First Spectrum Case, the Court invoked the principle of equality under Article 14, the common law doctrine of “public trust” (that is, the government acts as a trustee of the people in its ownership and distribution of natural resources), and the requirement of managing natural resources in order to serve the common good (drawn from the Directive Principles of State Policy) to hold that a public auction was the only acceptable way of distributing natural resources to private parties for exploitation. In other words, the Court not only scrutinised – and invalidated – the process by which distribution took place, but also the policy. The Court’s judgment (I argued) conflated two separate issues: the government’s obligations under the Directive Principles and the public trust doctrine, and the Court’s power (or lack thereof) to enforce those obligations. In deciding not only upon the process, but also the policy of allocation, the Court overstepped its authority in entering a field that was both beyond its competence and its legitimacy.

After the First Spectrum Case, the Court embarked upon a process of self-correction. In the Second Spectrum Case (a Presidential reference), the Court limited the holding of the First Spectrum Case only to spectrum allocation, and held that it did not lay down a requirement for public auctions being the only legitimate methods of distribution in all cases. The Second Spectrum Case left open the question, however, of the extent to which the Supreme Court could substitute its own opinions about legitimate policy for that of the government, and various observations in that case point in different directions. In Coalgate, the Supreme Court has gone a long way towards answering that question.

Before the Court, the petitioners contended that the coal block allocation violated statutory requirements under the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act, 1957 and the Coal Mines (Conservation and Development) Act, 1974 as well as the public trust doctrine, and Article 14. In paragraphs 12 through 73, the Court examined the statutory question (see an analysis here), and found that the allocation was illegal. Ordinarily, this would preclude any need to examine the constitutional question. However, perhaps in view of the government’s history of amending laws retrospectively to get around court decisions, the Court then proceeded to consider the constitutional questions as well.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to second-guess government policy

SupremeCourt_CoalgateThe process of allocation was done by a Screening Committee constituted by the Ministry of Coal. In paragraph 82 of its judgment, the Court framed the three constitutional issues that arise for its consideration: first, whether the allocation of coal blocks ought to have been done via public auction; secondly, whether the allocations based on the Screening Committee’s recommendations were unconstitutional; and thirdly, whether the allocations made via government “dispensation” (through the Ministry of Coal) were unconstitutional. The Court settled the third question on the basis of statutory violations (paragraph 153). Therefore, we shall focus here on the first two questions. Notice that while the first question pertains to the policy of allocation (public auction versus all other methods), the second question is about the process of allocation.

The Court correctly noted that the first question required it to consider the two spectrum cases discussed above. Affirming the Constitution Bench’s opinion in the Second Spectrum Case, it noted the Central Government’s contention that the increase in input price (due to a public auction) would have a “cascading effect” upon the economy (paragraph 100), the detailed objections of the state governments (such as, for example, that auctions would lead to the concentration of industries) (paragraph 100), and the supply-demand mismatch in 1993 (paragraph 102). On the basis of these considerations, the Court held:

WorkSafeAntiSexualHarassment“[We] cannot conduct a comparative study of various methods of distribution of natural resources and cannot mandate one method to be followed in all facts and circumstances, then if the grave situation of shortage of power prevailing at that time necessitated private participation and the Government felt that it would have been impractical and unrealistic to allocate coal blocks through auction and later on in 2004 or so there was serious opposition by many State Governments to bidding system, and the Government did not pursue competitive bidding/public auction route, then in our view, the administrative decision of the Government not to pursue competitive bidding cannot be said to be so arbitrary or unreasonable warranting judicial interference. It is not the domain of the Court to evaluate the advantages of competitive bidding vis-à-vis other methods of distribution / disposal of natural resources.”

This is consistent with the opinion in the Presidential Reference Case, namely that an auction is required only when the aim of an allocation is to maximise revenue (because clearly, under Article 14, an auction is the only method that bears a rational nexus with an objective of revenue maximisation), but that it is open to the government to have objective other than revenue maximisation, which are also consistent with the public trust doctrine and Article 39. In this case, the Court examined the material on record, which clearly indicated that the government’s objectives went beyond direct revenue maximisation, and refused to substitute its own opinion of which policy would be most consistent with public trust and the Directive Principles. This is exactly how it should be.

Absence of relevant guidelines: Constitutional infirmity in the procedural lapses

The Court then examined the process of allocation, via the Screening Committee. In Paragraphs 109 through 151, it examined the minutes of the 36 meetings of the Screening Committee between 1993 and 2005. The Court found that in its first seventeen meetings, the Screening Committee, at no point, examined the inter se merits of the various applicant companies (paragraph 128). Even when, in its eighteenth meeting the Steering Committee did raise the question of framing guidelines for making that determination, no guidelines were actually framed (paragraph 132). And even when guidelines were framed, the Court found that they “did not lay down any criterion for evaluating the comparative merits of the applicants.” (paragraph 134) The Court noted that in its subsequent meetings, the Screening Committee made its allocations without a discussion about the inter se merits of the applicant companies (see, for example, paragraph 135, 137, 138, and 139 for specific instances), and even changed its own guidelines repeatedly (paragraph 136). In 2005, for the first time, the Screening Committee advertised for applications, but yet again, its allocations demonstrated no comparative assessment or evaluation of the applicants (see, for example, paragraphs 143, 146.1, and 148 for specific instances).

On the basis of these findings, in paragraph 150, the Supreme Court listed twenty-two procedural flaws with the allocation process, most of which had to do with the absence of any considerations about the inter-se merit between the applicant companies, the lack of any objective criteria for making that determination, and the constant changes in the norms and guidelines.  Thus, in paragraph 154, the Court held:

(From left to right), Chief Justice R.M. Lodha, Justice Madan B. Lokur, and Justice Kurian Joseph of the Supreme Court of India, the bench in the "Coalgate" decision.
(From left to right), Chief Justice R.M. Lodha, Justice Madan B. Lokur, and Justice Kurian Joseph of the Supreme Court of India, the bench in the “Coalgate” decision.

“To sum up, the entire allocation of coal block as per recommendations made by the Screening Committee from 14.07.1993 in 36 meetings and the allocation through the Government dispensation route suffers from the vice of arbitrariness and legal flaws. The Screening Committee has never been consistent, it has not been transparent, there is no proper application of mind, it has acted on no material in many cases, relevant factors have seldom been its guiding factors, there was no transparency and guidelines have seldom guided it. On many occasions, guidelines have been honoured more in their breach. There was no objective criteria, nay, no criteria for evaluation of comparative merits. The approach had been ad-hoc and casual. There was no fair and transparent procedure, all resulting in unfair distribution of the national wealth. Common good and public interest have, thus, suffered heavily. Hence, the allocation of coal blocks based on the recommendations made in all the 36 meetings of the Screening Committee is illegal.”

It is crucial to note the Court’s assessment of the policy vis-à-vis the process. The Court upheld the non-use of a public auction as a method of distribution because, on a prima facie perusal of the material placed on record by the government, there were evident purposes behind the allocation that went beyond revenue maximisation. The Court did not substitute its own opinion of the legitimacy and validity of the purposes. On the other hand, while holding the process illegal, the Court did so on the basis that the government had placed no material to demonstrate how the allocations were made in a fair and non-arbitrary way. Therefore, much like its holding on the issue of auction, once again, the Court did not go into the question of whether the outcome of the government’s decision on allocation was valid or not, or into the merits of the guidelines; it restricted itself to the question of whether, in the process of allocation, the guidelines included essential considerations of merit and competence for deciding between applicant companies or not. It was the absence of relevant guidelines that constituted the basis of the Court’s decision, holding that the allocation was illegal.

Coalgate, therefore, represents an advance upon the route first marked out by the Court in the Second Spectrum Case. The Court will examine, for legality, the process of distributing natural resources. It will examine whether, during the process, the government has taken into account relevant considerations to ensure transparency and fairness. It will not, however – keeping in mind considerations of institutional competence and legitimacy – question the outcome of the process, or the policy behind the process.

The Court’s judgment is pragmatic and wise, and deserves to be lauded. One question remains open, however: what if the Screening Committee had prescribed guidelines for deciding inter-se merit between applicants, but the petitioners argued that the Committee’s allocation was contrary to its own guidelines? In other words, what degree of scrutiny will the Court apply to the government’s implementation of its own procedures, when disputed factual issues arise? Unlike an auction, where a violation of the results of the auction can be objectively determined, that enquiry is much harder to undertake when standards are at least partly subjective. Will the Court apply a hands-off test, taking the government’s determinations at face value, and insisting only upon the presence of guidelines (as it does, for instance, under Article 356) or a proportionality test, drawn from administrative law? Or, keeping in mind the principles of public trust and Article 39, will it subject them to a more rigorous scrutiny? Perhaps we need another Constitution bench to decide that question.

(Gautam Bhatia blogs at Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy.)

Supreme Court of India

Kerala’s new prohibition policy may not survive Article 14 scrutiny

GautamBhatia_SupremeCourtofIndiajpgLast week, it was reported that Kerala’s government is planning to impose prohibition in the state. The relationship between alcohol, crime, and public disorder (and the government’s attempts to regulate it) has enjoyed a troubled history throughout the world. For example, the adverse impact of alcohol upon society so troubled American lawmakers at the turn of the twentieth century, that they actually entrenched prohibition into their constitution, via an amendment, in 1920. The amendment proved impossible to enforce, contributed to a thriving black market and to organised crime, and was repealed thirteen years later. In light of similar experiences in India, the Kerala government’s decision has been criticised as being short-sighted and counter-productive. Should the decision be ultimately enforced by legislation, it also raises constitutional issues under Part III of the Constitution of India.

The Article 19(1)(g) issue

Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution guarantees to all citizens the freedom to “practice and profession, or carry on any occupation, trade or business.” Article 19(6) permits the government to impose, by law, reasonable restrictions upon that freedom, in the interests of the general public. To these provisions, we must add a third: Article 47 of the Constitution, which is part of the Directive Principles of State Policy. Article 47 requires the State to endeavour to bring about prohibition of the use except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.

The question of what constitutes a “reasonable restriction” upon an Article 19(1) fundamental right, for the purposes of Articles 19(2) to 19(6), was answered by the Supreme Court as early as 1952, in State of Madras v. V.G. Row. The Court outlined a classic proportionality enquiry, holding that in adjudicating reasonableness, “the nature of the right alleged to have been infringed, the underlying purpose of the restriction imposed, the extent and urgency of the evil sought to be remedied thereby, the disproportion of the imposition, the prevailing conditions at the time, should all enter into the judicial verdict.” While V.G. Row emphasised that reasonableness must be judged on a case-to-case basis, keeping in mind the variable background context, Supreme Court cases have established one rule of thumb for judging reasonableness-as-proportionality: legislation that is aimed at advancing one of the Directive Principles of State Policy carries a strong presumption of reasonableness, as well clearly being in the public interest. For instance, in MRF Ltd. v. Inspector, Kerala Govt., the question was whether a Kerala legislation that increased the number compulsory paid holidays that industrial establishments had to allow their employees, violated Article 19(1)(g). The Court adverted to V.G. Row’s proportionality test, and then invoked Article 43, a Directive Principle, that mandated the State to ensure a decent standard of life for workers. On the basis of Article 43, it held the legislation to be a reasonable restriction upon Article 19(1)(g), and therefore saved by Article 19(6).

Under the new policy, the number of outlets of the highly successful Kerala State Beverages Corporation will be reduced by ten per cent every year.
Under the new policy, the number of outlets of the highly successful Kerala State Beverages Corporation will be reduced by ten per cent every year.

More directly on point is the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision, in State of Gujarat v. Mirzapur Moti Kursehi Kassab Jamat, where a statute that almost completely prohibited cow slaughter was held valid for the most part, notwithstanding Article 19(6). The Court held that “a restriction placed on any Fundamental Right, aimed at securing Directive Principles will be held as reasonable and hence intra vires [as long as] it does not run in clear conflict with the fundamental right.” In light of Article 48, which directed the State to take steps to prohibit the slaughter of cows in order to preserve and improve breeds, the Court upheld the law, despite its deleterious affect upon 19(1)(g) rights. The Court did not, in this case, explain what it meant by a “clear conflict with the fundamental right”, which would presumably render even the DPSP-enforcing law unreasonable. Nonetheless, it is safe to assume that if Article 48 – following from V.G. Row – can justify a near-total ban on cow slaughter, then by the same logic, Article 47 can justify a near-total ban on the sale of alcohol. Consequently, in light of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, and the state of the law, a 19(1)(g) challenge to prohibition is unlikely to succeed.

The Article 14 issue

While the proposed prohibition law will perhaps survive Article 19 scrutiny, there is also the equality clause – Article 14 – to consider. As is well-known, the Court has evolved two tests to determine when Article 14 is violated. The older test requires an impugned classification to be based on an intelligible differentia, and to bear a rational nexus with the State purpose. The newer test simply prohibits ‘arbitrariness’. While ‘arbitrariness’ has been the dominant test over the last two decades, in recent cases (such as Centre for Public Interest Litigation v. Union of India), the Court has explicitly adopted the classification test.

While some of the case discussed above have also held that a legislation designed to advance the Directive Principles cannot, by virtue of that very fact, be arbitrary, the position becomes considerably more difficult if we understand Article 14 as requiring reasonable classification. This is because the Kerala government plans to impose prohibition while at the same time allowing 5-Star Hotels to continue serving alcohol. Here, the (potential) legislation would create a classification between 5-Star Hotels and all other establishments that ordinarily serve alcohol, with no discernible nexus with the State purpose (presumably, to preserve public health and public order).

Furthermore, there is direct precedent on the point. In 2005, the government of Maharashtra amended the Bombay Police Act, 1951 and prohibited “a performance of dance, of any kind or type, in any eating house, permit room or beer bar.” In the very next section, however, it created a specific exemption, inter alia, for three-star hotels and above. The Court invoked the classification test, and struck down the InfrastructureLawamendments to the Act. The government tried to defend the classification on the basis of the “type of crowd” that visited the regulated establishments (presumably, being more susceptible to moral deprivation by watching dance), an argument to which the Court gave extremely short shrift, holding merely that: in our opinion, all the aforesaid reasons are neither supported by any empirical data nor common sense. In fact, they would be within the realm of “myth” based on stereotype images.” The Court went on to hold that “a distinction, the foundation of which is classes of the establishments and classes/kind of persons, who frequent the establishment and those who own the establishments can not be supported under the constitutional philosophy so clearly stated in the Preamble of the Constitution of India and the individual Articles prohibiting discrimination on the basis of caste, colour, creed, religion or gender.

It would therefore seem to be beyond cavil that the basis of exempting 5-Star hotels from prohibition cannot withstand Article 14 scrutiny. Ironically, of course, the Kerala government could get around the Article 14 problem simply by prohibiting the sale of alcohol entirely, 5-Star hotels included. Whether it will do that is something that remains to be seen.

(Gautam Bhatia blogs at Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy.)



Human Rights Supreme Court of India

TRAI’s media ownership recommendations rest on contested understanding of free speech

GautamBhatia_SupremeCourtofIndiajpgOn August 12, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (“TRAI”) released a set of recommendations on issues relating to media ownership (Medianama has a great summary, available here). TRAI’s recommendations cover a range of topics, including political and corporate control over the media, issues of horizontal and vertical integration, private treaties, and paid news. The background of the enquiry is revealed in the Introduction. The second paragraph, for instance, notes that: “the right to freedom of speech is essential for sustaining the vitality of democracy. This is why the right is sacrosanct; it is fiercely protected by the media. The question that arises is whether reposing such a right in the media simultaneously casts an obligation on the media to convey information and news that is accurate, truthful and unbiased… the point is: is not the right of readers and viewers to access unbiased and truthful information from the media embedded in the right of the freedom of speech of the media?” (1.2)

Speaker’s freedom of speech and listener’s freedom of speech – Supreme Court decisions split between libertarian and social democratic approaches

Is it, though? Some countries have embedded this viewpoint in their constitutional texts. The German constitution, for instance, guarantees to everyone the right to “freely inform himself from generally accessible sources.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, whose language is closely mirrored by the South African constitution, protects the right to “seek, receive, and impart information.” These constitutions accord equal weight to the interests of both parties to a system of communication: the speakers (that is, in this case, the media), and listeners (readers and viewers). By comparison, Article 19(1)(a) is sparsely-worded and speaker-oriented: “all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression.”

InfrastructureLawOver the decades, Article 19(1)(a)’s inconclusive language has divided the Supreme Court of India. Judicial history reveals two distinct – and contrary – understandings of our free speech clause. Let us call these the libertarian understanding and the social-democratic understanding respectively.

According to the libertarian understanding, the free speech clause protects the interests of speakers against coercive governmental control. Freedom of speech exists so that the street-corner orator and the dissident journalist can disseminate their opinions to the public without fear of State persecution or censorship. State regulation that curtails the power of any entity to “speak” is therefore presumptively unconstitutional (it might, of course, be saved by Article 19(2)). The libertarian understanding is best exemplified by the Supreme Court’s newspaper-regulation cases, starting with Sakal Papers v. Union of India, in 1960. In that case, the government imposed a price-per-page regulation upon newspapers, and also restricted the number of advertisements they could carry, as well as the volume of Sunday supplements. The affected newspapers took the case to the Supreme Court. The government argued that the purpose of the regulations was to break the market-monopoly enjoyed by established newspapers. Because of economies of scale, such newspapers were able to keep their prices so low, that they became a veritable entry-barrier for new newspapers to access the market. Or, in other words, the regulations were aimed at facilitating the free speech interests of the public (to have access to a diverse set of sources of news) and non-established media players who wished to enter the market. The Supreme Court rejected this contention, and struck down the regulations on 19(1)(a) grounds.

The government’s argument in Sakal Papers reflects the social-democratic understanding of free speech. Free speech – on this view – is an integral part of democracy, and its value – to quote the American Supreme Court judge Hugo Black – “rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.” The roots of the argument go back to the great free speech scholar Alexander Meikljohn, who argued that if citizens are to effectively participate in the democratic project, then they must have access to information and iHugoBlack_freepressdeas on the basis of which they can formulate sound opinions about the common good, and exercise refined political judgment. Unlike the libertarian understanding, which puts State and individual at odds, the social-democratic understanding views State and individuals as collaborators in an enterprise aimed at creating thriving and vibrant public sphere. On this understanding, the market – just as much as the State – can become an impediment to this project (as was the case in Sakal Papers).

The Supreme Court in Bennett Coleman affirmed the decision in Sakal Papers (over a strong dissent by Justice K.K. Mathew). In other cases, however, the Court has adopted the opposite viewpoint. In LIC v. Manubhai D. Shah, it imposed a compulsory right-of-reply upon the in-house journal of the Life Insurance Corporation, so that readers could have access to both sides of a debate. And in Cricket Association of West Bengal – which was a case about broadcasting regulations – it famously held that “it is justified by the Government to prevent the concentration of the frequencies in the hands of the rich few who can monopolise the dissemination of views and information to suit their interests and thus in fact to control and manipulate public opinion in effect smothering the right to freedom of speech and expression and freedom of information of others.”

The basic concern of the social-democratic approach – as vividly exemplified by the quoted excerpt – is that the freedom of speech, in today’s world, is mediated by a market-based infrastructure (televisions, newspapers), access to which is often in the hands of non-State parties. If the goal is to create a thriving public sphere, then regulating this market becomes not only desirable, but positively necessary.

TRAI recommendations go beyond competitiveness in the media market

Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries has made a large investment in Network 18, a holding company for several Indian media entities.

With the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence split down the middle, the TRAI Recommendations unambiguously take the side of the social-democratic approach. For instance, in the Introduction itself, TRAI rejects the argument that the existing regulatory regime of competition and anti-trust law, which is aimed at preventing market dominance in a way that stifles effective competition, is sufficient in the sphere of the media. It notes that the media cannot, and should not, be bracketed with general commodities and services… the principles adopted in the competition law may not serve the special purpose of addressing the need for plurality of news and views.” (1.12) This is a particularly interesting observation. On the libertarian model, government intervention should be restricted to cases of market failure, which are specified in an effective competition law regime. The TRAI Recommendations are based on the premise, however, that because of the importance of free speech to the democratic project, it is not sufficient merely to maintain a threshold level of competitiveness, but intervene further in order to ensure the goal of plurality.

These ideas come to the fore in TRAI’s substantive recommendations. In Chapter Two, it is concerned with defining the concept of “control” in the case of media companies. “Control” is defined both in the Companies Act, and by the Competition Commission. TRAI observes, however, that “in view of the sensitivity surrounding the diversity of news and views in a democracy, it is important to frame rules to include all possible mechanisms by which an entity can influence a media outlet… a comprehensive definition of control [is required] exclusively for the media industry.” (2.9) TRAI’s final definition of control is wide-ranging, and includes “covert understandings” that enable entities to control “decision-making in the strategic affairs… and appointment of key managerial personnel” of a media outlet. (2.13)

External and internal pluralism

The definition of control is central to assessing the “diversity” of media markets, and it is the objective of achieving diversity and plurality that constitutes the core of TRAI’s Recommendations. Chapters Three and Four address issues of “external pluralism” – that is, diversifying ownership and control, and preventing vertical integration of media markets. When identifying the relevant “market” in order to address cross-media ownership issues, TRAI restricts itself to the news and current affairs genre, because of its centrality to “influence[ing] the opinion-making of citizens.” (3.13) It restricts the relevant segments to television and print (excluding the Internet) because of the reach they enjoy. And it defines the geographical market in terms of language, and the State in which that language is spoken in majority. For example – to use the example TRAI gives – a relevant “market” (to assess issues of concentration and diversity) would be Bengali newspaper and television market, which is engaged in the dissemination of news and current affairs, in West Bengal. (3.28) As one can see, the dominant idea is that the average Bengali consumer’s main source of news is Bengali television and Bengali newspapers. Plurality within this market, so defined, is therefore of utmost importance. The Recommendations then go on to make technical suggestions about the regulations needed to prevent and dilute concentration.

APCCLP_CompanyLaw-BannerThe TRAI Recommendation are not, however, limited to ensuring external pluralism by enabling a diversity of voices to access the marketplace. Chapter Five addresses concerns of internal pluralism – that is, not just who is speaking, but what is being said. Here, the Recommendations address the problems of paid news, private treaties (through which a media entity acquires shares in a corporation in return for favourable reporting), advertorials (advertisements which, in form, content and placement, provide a misleading impression that they are news reports), and the blurring of ownership and editorial functions. TRAI recommends statutorily rules that expressly proscribe these practices. As we can see, these recommendations are grounded in the idea that the freedom of the media to communicate is subordinate to its responsibility to ensure that the content of what it communicates is free of vested interests. This takes us back to the social-democratic understanding of free speech, where the ultimate objective is to ensure that no entity – whether the State, using its coercive power, or private players, using their market power – can distort the free and holistic circulation of ideas and information in the public sphere.

Taken as a whole, the Recommendations are rich and detailed, and provide much food for agreement as well as disagreement. For instance, restricting the product market to “news and current affairs” ignores the pervasive influence of culture in the public sphere. Indeed, it rests upon a particularly constricted idea of free speech and “democracy” (that, as being restricted to the explicitly political) that was first propounded by Meiklejohn, but which he himself subsequently repudiated, in favour of a broader understanding. Nonetheless, the aim of this essay has been to demonstrate that the best way of understanding and assessing these Recommendations is to ground them within a particular (and contested) understanding of Article 19(1)(a), that has – at least partially – been endorsed by the Supreme Court.

(Gautam Bhatia blogs at Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy.)