Free speech can’t be stifled with criminal cases: SC

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday said that free speech of the citizens of this country cannot be stifled by implicating them in criminal cases, unless such speech has the tendency to affect public order.

A bench comprising Justices L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat said: “India is a plural and multicultural society. The promise of liberty, enunciated in the Preamble, manifests itself in various provisions which outline each citizen’s rights; they include the right to free speech, to travel freely and settle (subject to such reasonable restrictions that may be validly enacted) throughout the length and breadth of India.”

The observation by the top court was made while quashing the FIR registered against Shillong Times Editor Patricia Mukhim on a Facebook post on violence against non-tribal people in Meghalaya.

The bench said when allegations in the FIR or the complaint do not prima facie constitute any offence or make out a case against the accused, the FIR is liable to be quashed.

“As there is no attempt made by the appellant (Mukhim) to incite people belonging to a community to indulge in any violence, the basic ingredients of the offence under Sections 153 A and 505 (1) (c) have not been made out,” it said.

The bench said a close scrutiny of the Facebook post indicate Mukhim’s agony was directed against the apathy shown by the Chief Minister of Meghalaya, the Director General of Police and the Dorbar Shnong (Khasi village institutions) of the area in not taking any action against the culprits who attacked the non-tribals youngsters.

“The Facebook post read in its entirety pleads for equality of non-tribals in the state of Meghalaya. In our understanding, there was no intention on the part of the appellant to promote class/community hatred,” it observed.

Mukhim had made it clear that criminal elements have no community and immediate action has to be taken against persons who had indulged in the brutal attack on non-tribal youngsters playing basketball.

“In such instances, if the victims voice their discontent, and speak out, especially if the state authorities turn a blind eye, or drag their feet, such voicing of discontent is really a cry for anguish, for justice denied – or delayed. This is exactly what appears to have happened in this case,” the bench noted.

The bench said the attack upon six non-locals, carried out by masked individuals, is not denied by the state and its reporting too is not denied. The state, in fact, issued a press release.

The fervent plea made by the appellant for protection of non-tribals living in Meghalaya and for their equality cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be categorised as hate speech, it noted.

“The complaint made by the Dorbar Shnong, Lawsohtun that the statement of the appellant would incite communal tension and might instigate a communal conflict in the entire state is only a figment of imagination,” said the top court, as it quashed the FIR.

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