Freedom of circulation and propagation of Ideas

Propagation of ideas and circulation of information is part and parcel of democracy and it is essential, as the Supreme Court held in Sakal Papers v. Union of India, for the “proper functioning of the processes of democracy”. In this article, the author will look into Article 19(1)(a) with respect to freedom of circulation and propagation of ideas as a Fundamental Right under the Indian Constitution. The availability of various ideas in the marketplace without any interference from the State strengthens the foundations of democracy. People can only have informed debates on the issue of “great importance” when the information is readily available through various portals to the public. With this context, the author will analyse two important judgments of the Supreme Court on this point of law.

Locating the Right to Freedom of Circulation and propagation of Ideas

In Sakal Papers case, the basic issue was constitutionality of Newspaper (Price and Page) Act, 1956 and the Daily Newspaper (Price and Page) Order, 1960. The objective of these laws was to “regulate the prices charged for newspapers in relation to their pages” which was ostensibly done to “prevent unfair competition” and give “fairer opportunities” to all the other newspapers. The petitioners contended that through these laws the selling price of their newspapers will increase for their readers, if they want to retain the same number of pages as they are currently distributing, which will lead to an adverse effect on their circulation. Otherwise, if not to increase the selling price, the newspapers will have to reduce the number of pages which will infringe their right to circulate and propagate ideas. The five-judges bench of the Supreme Court noted in Paragraph 26 that,

26. A bare perusal of the Act and the Order thus makes it abundantly clear that the right of a newspaper to publish news and views and to utilise as many pages as it likes for that purpose is made to depend upon the price charged to the readers. Prior to the promulgation of the Order every newspaper was free to charge whatever price it chose, and thus had a right unhampered by State regulation to publish news and views. This liberty is obviously interfered with by the Order which provides for the maximum number of pages for the particular price charged.

The Supreme Court explicitly held in 1950 in the case of Brij Bhushan v. The State of Delhi that there is no mention of freedom of press in the Constitution, but it falls within the ambit of Article 19(1)(a)—that is freedom of speech and expression. In the Sakal Papers case, the Supreme Court while focussing on this Right under the Indian Constitution, held that “The right to propagate one’s ideas is inherent in the conception of freedom of speech and expression.” Having said this, the Court then held two other important and allied rights, that are, the propagation of ideas can be done either by word of mouth or by writing and the volume of the content published. A citizen has a right to publish whatever she pleases (matter does not matter, unless it lies within the ambit of clause 2 of Article 19) and in any amount she pleases. Any restraint placed on these rights is a violation of Article 19(1)(a). The Order and the Act of the government was held unconstitutional by the Court as they infringe the press’ right to publish their ideas and the volume of the matter they are publishing. The court said in paragraph 27 that,

It cannot be gainsaid that the impugned order seeks to place a restraint on the latter aspect of the right by prescribing a price page schedule. We may add that the fixation of a minimum price for the number of pages which a newspaper is entitled to publish is obviously not for ensuring a reasonable price to the buyers of newspapers but for expressly cutting down the volume of circulation of some newspapers by making the price so unattractively high for a class of its readers as is likely to deter it from purchasing such newspapers.”

Furthermore, the Courts must ensure that the fundamental rights are not to be interpreted narrowly and they must not be “cut down by too astute or too restricted an approach” (see LIC v. Manubhai D Shah). In Manubhai D. Shah, the Court held that a citizen has a right to propagate an idea through “the print media or any other communication channel example the radio and the television”. Circulation of ideas is very important for a healthy democracy as it enables the citizens to gather information and build opinions. The Court held in paragraph 8 that, “freedom to air one’s views is the life line of any democratic institution and any attempt to stifle, suffocate or gag this right would sound a death-knell to democracy and would help usher in autocracy or dictatorship.

In Manubhai D. Shah, the Court while building upon the freedom to propagate ideas held that a citizen also has a right to reply/rebut to a criticism levelled against the view propagated by him. Hence, any restriction on speech and expression apart from Article 19(2) on a citizen’s right is a threat to democracy. Further, the restrictions must not be interpreted so widely that it infringes upon the citizens’ right and dilutes the whole purpose.

Conclusion

Authoritarian governments use various penal laws like the draconian UAPA, Sedition (Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code), National Security Act etc., to infringe citizens freedom of speech and expression under the garb of ‘reasonable restrictions. These penal laws have stringent punishments and bail conditions that are restrictive which impedes the courts from granting bail. Although the courts have championed civil liberties despite such stringent provisions for bail, the courts have looked into the accusations more diligently and judicially. The recent ‘toolkit’ incident is a classic example to portray the government’s use of sedition laws to shut dissent and deter informed citizens from critiquing government’s policy.

Read more on democratic backsliding in India here. Here, the author discussed why there must be a push for free media and ‘citizens as watchdogs’ to put the elected executives under strict scrutiny especially under the present government.