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Attempt To Crush Freedom Of Speech

The attempt to assassinate author Salman Rushdie in New York is emblematic of the deplorable state of free speech regime.

Democracies throughout the world have had a very tumultuous course in the evolution of their civil liberties. The ruling class, the legal and sociological philosophers have been at constant loggerheads over the need for the expansion of civil and political rights. Free speech is practiced and preserved rather robustly in western justice delivery systems. In Texas vs. Johnson (1989), famously known as the US National Flag case, the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated prohibitions on desecrating the American Flag enforced in 48 of the 50 states. In the controversial 5-4 ruling in which the Court held that desecration of the US flag was constitutionally protected, calling the First Amendment’s protection of speech a “bedrock principle” and stating that the government could not prohibit “expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

The Indian Constitution enshrines myriad of freedoms which are contained in its Article 19. Article 19 (1)(a) envisages the right of all citizens to have freedom of speech and expression. The State is however empowered to apply brakes to freedom of speech in the name of reasonable restrictions, which inter alia include public order, decency or morality.

On August 12, 2022, Salman Rushdie, author of the controversial book "Satanic Verses" was stabbed by a man in New York. The book has been in the eye of a storm ever since it came to be published. It ruffled the feathers of Muslims across the globe. The act exhibits the growing religious intolerance which is striking a dagger through the hallowed principle of freedom of speech and expression.

Freedom Of Press

A benchmark judgement in the freedom of press domain is Indian Express Newspapers vs. Union of India (1986). The fundamental principle involved was the “people’s right to know”. Freedom of speech and expression should, therefore, receive a generous support from all those who believe in the participation of the people in the administration. The Court noted that it is therefore the primary duty of all national courts to uphold the freedom of speech and invalidate all laws or administrative actions which interfere with this freedom, contrary to the constitutional mandate.

The Press and the Judiciary are both considered as the two watchdogs of democracy. Thus, presumably they are ought to perform their task of ensuring the smooth and just functioning of executive, harmoniously and in consonance with each other.

The attempt on Rushdie's life showcase the state of affairs so far as the free speech jurisdiction is concerned. Even in developed democracies like USA, the scourge of religious fanaticism and intolerance is spreading its wings.

Religious Rights vis-a-vis Free Speech

One of the most landmark judgements, which stands as a crucial standpoint in the Indian free speech jurisprudence, is the Bijoe Emmanuel & Ors vs State Of Kerala & Ors (1986). In this case some students belonging to Jehovah’s Witness (a Christian community) were expelled from school under the instructions of Deputy Inspector of Schools for having refused to sing the Indian national anthem. One of the parents challenged the Kerala High Court’s decision to uphold the expulsion of the students. The Supreme Court of India overruled the Kerala High Court, and directed the respondent authorities to re-admit the children into school. Several cases of courts of other countries, in which the Jehovah’s witnesses were exempted from being coerced to revere political symbols, were cited. The Court formed its opinion through the touchstone of Article 25 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of conscience and freely to profess, practice and propagate religion. Supreme Court affirmed that the fundamental rights under Articles 19(1)(a) and 25(1) were violated and they were entitled to be protected. The Court added in the epilogue: “our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practices tolerance, let us not dilute it.”

Author's Creative Freedom

In its 2018 judgement, N Radhakrishnan vs Union Of India (2018) 9 SCC 725  involving Malyalam novel Meesha, in which the petitioner sought to ban the book because it allegedly showed temple going women in a bad light, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition. The Court said, “The fundamental right of an author to freely express oneself cannot be held hostage to vagaries of subjective perceptions of random persons.” The Court said banning of books choked the free flow of ideas. Quoting French writer Voltaire’s famous line – “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”, Chief Justice Dipak Misra dismissed the petition. “The flag of democratic values and ideals of freedom and liberty has to be kept flying high at all costs and the judiciary must remain committed to this spirit at all times unless they really and, we mean, really in the real sense of the term, run counter to what is prohibited in law. And, needless to emphasise that prohibition should not be allowed entry at someone’s fancy or view or perception. This judgement is particularly important in today’s times as the diversification of theories and hypothesises are causing disturbance to groups and people who hold a divergent viewpoint.

Imperatives Of Free Speech

Free speech in the contemporary era is extremely imperative. It is the interplay of uninhibited and un-tinkered propositions, which impels the evolution of legal as well as philosophical school of thought. If the judiciary eschews the opportunity to safeguard this sacrosanct right, the democracy will sooner or later perish. It is the liberty to express and the liberty to manifest one’s thoughts, which makes a polity healthy. The perilous status of the world with respect to unabashed violations of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, calls for profound introspection by dispensations across the world. The attempt to assassinate Salman Rushdie portrays the need for a global response.


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