SC: Mindful of need to protect free speech

The nature of the injunction to be imposed on Sudarshan TV from airing its controversial show on the entry of Muslims in civil services would require careful consideration, the Supreme Court observed on Monday, underscoring that its orders on regulation of television content should not lead to a chilling effect on free speech.

A three-judge bench headed by justice DY Chandrachud asked the parties to the case whether or not there should be a blanket injunction on the programme, Bindas Bol, or whether the injunction should be on those aspects of the show that can be counted as hate speech.

“What exactly can the court prohibit? It is not like a trademark infringement suit where court can say not to use a particular symbol or colour. In this case, we can’t say for instance visuals of a bearded man in green T-shirt and skull cap should not be aired. We can’t go into such specifics. That will denigrate the standards of dialogue of a Constitution court,” justice Chandrachud said.

Advocate Shadan Farasat, who was appearing for three students from Jamia Millia Islamia, expressed doubts whether a limited injunction would serve the purpose, adding that he will come up with suggestions in response to the query from the bench on the nature of the junction to be imposed.

During the hearing on Monday, the court also took exception to an affidavit filed by Sudarshan TV on Sunday in which the Noida-based news channel had stated that it will comply with all laws while airing the remaining episodes of the controversial programme but did not go into any specific changes it intended to introduce.

The court also objected to the affidavit referring to certain shows telecast by NDTV in 2008 and 2010 on “Hindu Terror,” with justice Chandrachud asking what the relevance of the shows was to this case.

The affidavit by editor-in-chief of Sudarshan News, Suresh Chavhanke, had highlighted two shows aired by NDTV, one in September 2008 titled “Hindu Terror: Myth or Fact” and another in 2010 titled “Is Saffron Threat Real?” both anchored by journalist Barkha Dutt ,which he submitted “pained” and “shocked” him.

“Did we ask for your opinion on NDTV show,” justice Chandrachud added.

Jain said that it was in response to the court’s remarks concerning representation of a Muslim man in green T-shirt.

“This is contrary to judicial practice. Just because we ask questions does not mean you can shoot off your mouth and put it on affidavit,” the bench said.

The court had, on September 18, asked Sudarshan News to file an affidavit giving details of what changes it proposed to make in the programme so as to convince the court to lift the injunction imposed on September 15.

The top court had on September 15 barred further telecast of the controversial programme after it took strong exception to the content of the show, observing that the first four episodes gave an impression that it was being aired with the insidious objective of vilifying the Muslim community and to bringing it into disrepute.

The court was hearing a petition filed by advocate Firoz Iqbal Khan challenging the broadcast of the programme contending that it was derogatory towards the Muslim community and fell within the realm of hate speech and was in violation of the programme code which regulates TV content.

The bench, which also comprises justices KM Joseph and Indu Malhotra, had also decided to lay down guidelines on regulation of TV content after it took note of the fact that self-regulation had not achieved desired results.

The court also said that it is mindful of the fact that its orders on regulation of TV content should not lead to a chilling effect on free speech. The court made this observation after advocate J Sai Deepak, who was appearing for certain intervenors, said that the court should consider the impact its orders may have as it could resulting in a chilling effect.

“You are absolutely right. But here we are concerned with balance between free speech and dignity. And the dignity is not of an individual but a community as a whole. If it was an individual, he could have availed civil remedy. But here the community is a large amorphous group and we can’t ask them to take recourse to civil remedy,” justice Chandrachud said.

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