Ministers’ Freedom of Expression and Related Issues

  • The Supreme Court ruled that there is no reason to impose “additional restrictions” on Ministers’ free speech and that the government is not vicariously liable for disparaging remarks made by them, even if the remarks are related to state affairs or intended to protect the government.
  • Many politicians make unjustified statements and then apologize.
  • The PM or CM has no disciplinary authority over the members of the Council of Ministers.
  • In a country like ours, where there is a multi-party system and coalition governments are frequently formed, the whip cannot always control the behavior of the politicians.
  • A derogatory speech that resembles hate speech cannot be protected under the free speech right.

Do ministers and lawmakers have complete freedom of expression?

  • Ministers and lawmakers have the same right to free speech and expression as other citizens under Article 19(1) of the Constitution, and no additional restrictions can be imposed to limit their freedom of expression.
  • Restrictions: A five-judge Constitution bench ruled that restrictions on free speech cannot go beyond what is prescribed in Article 19(2) of the Constitution, which imposes reasonable restrictions on all citizens.

What is the case?

  • The case began in July 2016, when the Supreme Court took cognizance of a contentious statement made by a former UP minister.
  • He had allegedly termed a gang rape case as part of a “political conspiracy”. While he received an unconditional apology, the Court agreed to look into the larger issue.
  • In October 2017, a three-judge bench referred the case to the constitution bench for a decision on various issues.

Key issues examined

  • The top priority was to determine whether ministers, public functionaries, and lawmakers can claim freedom of speech while expressing opinions on sensitive issues.
  • Another critical issue was whether a statement made by a minister in relation to any State affairs or for the protection of government could be attributed vicariously to the government itself.

Article 19

Article 19(1) (a) guarantees all citizens the right to free speech and expression. It is the first condition of liberty and has a significant impact on public opinion.

Restriction: According to Article 19(2), restrictions on freedom of speech and expression may be imposed in the interests of:

  • Sovereignty and integrity of India,
  • Security of the state,
  • Friendly relations with foreign states,
  • Public order, decency or morality, or
  • In relation to contempt of court,
  • Defamation, or
  • Incitement to an offense

What does the decision say about restrictions on free speech?

  • Citizens could petition the Court for violations of Articles 19 (free expression) and 21 (human rights) (right to life).
  • A statement made by the Minister that is contrary to citizens’ rights may not be actionable on its own.
  • This concept of collective responsibility cannot be extended to every statement made orally by a Minister outside the House of the People/Legislative Assembly.

Way ahead

  • Legal framework: Before taking action as a constitutional tort, a proper legal framework was required.
  • Political will: Parliament could pass legislation or enact a code prohibiting citizens in general, and public servants in particular, from making disparaging or vitriolic remarks about their fellow citizens.
  • Political parties, too, should develop a code of conduct to regulate and control the actions and speech of their functionaries and members.
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