Criminal defamation law constitutionally valid; right to free speech does not mean the right to defame others

Supreme Court: Writing down the 268 pages long judgment where the constitutional validity of Sections 499 and 500 IPC and Sections 199(1) to 199(4) CrPC was upheld, the bench of Dipak Misra and P.C. Pant, JJ stated that it is difficult to come to a conclusion that the existence of criminal defamation is absolutely obnoxious to freedom of speech and expression.

The Court, after making an in depth analysis of Section 499 IPC, held that the provision along with Explanations and Exceptions cannot be called unreasonable, for they are neither vague nor excessive nor arbitrary. The Court further said that criminal defamation which is in existence in the form of Sections 499 and 500 IPC, is not a restriction on right to freedom of speech and expression that can be characterized as disproportionate. Right to free speech cannot mean that a citizen can defame the other as protection of reputation is a fundamental right as well as a human right.

Regarding the Section 199 CrPC it was contended by the petitioner that except the President of India, the Vice-President of India, the Governor of a State, the Administrator of a Union territory, mention of the other public servants in the provision puts them in a different class to enable them to file a case through the public prosecutor in the Court of Session which makes the provision discriminatory. The Court rejected the said contention and held the public servants constitute a different class as public function stands on a different footing than the private activities of a public servant. The provision gives them protection for their official acts and there cannot be defamatory attacks on them because of discharge of their due functions.  However, the Court clarified that criticism is different than defamation. [Subramanian Swamy v. Union of India, 2016 SCC OnLine SC 550, decided on 13.05.2016]

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