Regulators

Freedom of speech and expression cannot be "absolute": Supreme Court

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NEW DELHI: While holding that freedom of speech and expression cannot be "absolute," the Supreme Court refused to quash criminal charges against Marathi poet Vasant Dattatraya Gurjar for penning an alleged vulgar and obscene poem on Mahatma Gandhi in 1994. 

Putting vulgar and obscene words in the mouth of "historically respected personalities" like Gandhi cannot pass the "contemporary community standards test" meant to adjudge the obscenity of an alleged literary work, Justices Dipak Misra and P C Pant said. 

At the same time, the court upheld the Bombay High Court's decision of not quashing charge under section 292 (sale, publication of obscene books) under the IPC framed against bank employee Devidas Ramchandra Tuljapurkar for publishing the "vulgar and obscene" poem on Gandhi in 1994 in an in-house magazine of which he was an editor. The bank employee had challenged framing of charges against him.

However, the Court quashed the criminal proceedings against the printers and publishers of the magazine in which the poem penned by Gurjar was published, saying they have already tendered an unconditional apology.

The bench asked Tuljapurkar, the then editor of in-house magazine of Bank of Maharashtra Employees Union, to express his point of view before the lower court during the trial. The bench noted that the publisher published the poem "Gandhi Mala Bhetala" in 1994 and "immediately" after coming to know its impact; he tendered an unconditional apology in the next issue of the magazine. 

"Once he has tendered the unconditional apology even before the inception of the proceedings and almost more than two decades have passed, we are inclined to quash the charge framed against him as well as the printer. We are disposed to quash the charge against the printer, as it is submitted that he had printed as desired by the publisher. Hence, they stand discharged," the bench said. 

"Freedom of speech and expression has to be given a broad canvas, but it has to have inherent limitations, which are permissible within the constitutional parameters. We have already opined that freedom of speech and expression as enshrined under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution is not absolute in view of Article 19(2) of the Constitution.We reiterate the said right is a right of great value and transcends and with the passage of time and growth of culture, it has to pave the path of ascendancy, but it cannot be put in the compartment of absoluteness. There is constitutional limitation attached to it," the bench said. 

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