Centre for Internet & Society

In this post, Gautam Bhatia has explained the law on public order as a reasonable restriction to freedom of expression under Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India.

Article 19(2) of the Constitution authorises the government to impose, by law, reasonable restrictions upon the freedom of speech and expression “in the interests of… public order.” To understand the Supreme Court’s public order jurisprudence, it is important to break down the sub-clause into its component parts, and focus upon their separate meanings. Specifically, three terms are important: “reasonable restrictions”, “in the interests of”, and “public order”.

The Supreme Court’s public order jurisprudence can be broadly divided into three phases. Phase One (1949 – 1950), which we may call the pre-First Amendment Phase, is characterised by a highly speech-protective approach and a rigorous scrutiny of speech-restricting laws. Phase Two (1950 – 1960), which we may call the post-First Amendment Expansionist Phase, is characterised by a judicial hands-off approach towards legislative and executive action aimed at restricting speech. Phase Three (1960 - present day), which we may call the post-First Amendment Protectionist phase, is characterised by a cautious, incremental move back towards a speech-protective, rigorous-scrutiny approach. This classification is broad-brush and generalist, but serves as a useful explanatory device.

Before the First Amendment, the relevant part of Article 19(2) allowed the government to restrict speech that “undermines the security of, or tends to overthrow, the State.” The scope of the restriction was examined by the Supreme Court in Romesh Thappar vs State of Madras and Brij Bhushan vs State of Delhi, both decided in 1950. Both cases involved the ban of newspapers or periodicals, under state laws that authorised the government to prohibit the entry or circulation of written material, ‘in the interests of public order’. A majority of the Supreme Court struck down the laws. In doing so, they invoked the concept of “over-breadth”: according to the Court, “public order” was synonymous with public tranquility and peace, while undermining the security of, or tending to overthrow the State, referred to acts which could shake the very foundations of the State. Consequently, while acts that undermined or tended to overthrow the State would also lead to public disorder, not all acts against public order would rise to the level of undermining the security of the State. This meant that the legislation proscribed acts that, under Article 19(2), the government was entitled to prohibit, as well as those that it wasn’t. This made the laws “over-broad”, and unconstitutional. In a dissenting opinion, Fazl Ali J. argued that “public order”, “public tranquility”, “the security of the State” and “sedition” were all interchangeable terms, that meant the same thing.

In Romesh Thappar and Brij Bhushan, the Supreme Court also held that the impugned legislations imposed a regime of “prior restraint” – i.e., by allowing the government to prohibit the circulation of newspapers in anticipation of public disorder, they choked off speech before it even had the opportunity to be made. Following a long-established tradition in common law as well as American constitutional jurisprudence, the Court held that a legislation imposing prior restraint bore a heavy burden to demonstrate its constitutionality.

The decisions in Romesh Thappar and Brij Bhushan led to the passage of the First Amendment, which substituted the phrase “undermines the security of, or tends to overthrow, the State” with “public order”, added an additional restriction in the interests of preventing an incitement to an offence, and – importantly – added a the word “reasonable” before “restrictions”.

The newly-minted Article 19(2) came to be interpreted by the Supreme Court in Ramji Lal Modi vs State of UP (1957). At issue was a challenge to S. 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised insulting religious beliefs with an intent to outrage religious feelings of any class. The challenge made an over-breadth argument: it was contended that while some instances of outraging religious beliefs would lead to public disorder, not all would, and consequently, the Section was unconstitutional. The Court rejected this argument and upheld the Section. It focused on the phrase “in the interests of”, and held that being substantially broader than a term such as “for the maintenance of”, it allowed the government wide leeway in restricting speech. In other words, as long as the State could show that there was some connection between the law, and public order, it would be constitutional. The Court went on to hold that the calculated tendency of any speech or expression aimed at outraging religious feelings was, indeed, to cause public disorder, and consequently, the Section was constitutional. This reasoning was echoed in Virendra vs State of Punjab (1957), where provisions of the colonial era Press Act, which authorised the government to impose prior restraint upon newspapers, were challenged. The Supreme Court upheld the provisions that introduced certain procedural safeguards, like a time limit, and struck down the provisions that didn’t. Notably, however, the Court upheld the imposition of prior restraint itself, on the ground that the phrase “in the interests of” bore a very wide ambit, and held that it would defer to the government’s determination of when public order was jeopardised by speech or expression.

In Ramji Lal Modi and Virendra, the Court had rejected the argument that the State can only impose restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression if it demonstrates a proximate link between speech and public order. The Supreme Court had focused closely on the breadth of the phrase “in the interests of”, but had not subjected the reasonable requirement to any analysis. In earlier cases such as State of Madras vs V.G. Row, the Court had stressed that in order to be “reasonable”, a restriction would have to take into account the nature and scope of the right, the extent of infringement, and proportionality. This analysis failed to figure in Ramji Lal Modi and Virendra. However, in Superintendent, Central Prison vs Ram Manohar Lohia, the Supreme Court changed its position, and held that there must be a “proximate” relationship between speech and public disorder, and that it must not be remote, fanciful or far fetched. Thus, for the first time, the breath of the phrase “in the interests of” was qualified, presumably from the perspective of reasonableness. In Lohia, the Court also stressed again that “public order” was of narrower ambit than mere “law and order”, and would require the State to discharge a high burden of proof, along with evidence.

Lohia marks the start of the third phase in the Court’s jurisprudence, where the link of proximity between speech and public disorder has gradually been refined. In Babulal Parate vs State of Maharashtra (1961) and Madhu Limaye vs Sub-Divisional Magistrate (1970), the Court upheld prior restraints under S. 144 of the CrPC, while clarifying that the Section could only be used in cases of an Emergency. Section 144 of the CrPC empowers executive magistrates (i.e., high-ranking police officers) to pass very wide-ranging preventive orders, and is primarily used to prohibit assemblies at certain times in certain areas, when it is considered that the situation is volatile, and could lead to violence. In Babulal Parate and Madhu Limaye, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Section 144, but also clarified that its use was restricted to situations when there was a proximate link between the prohibition, and the likelihood of public dirsorder.

In recent years, the Court has further refined its proximity test. In S. Rangarajan vs P. Jagjivan Ram (1989), the Supreme Court required proximity to be akin to a “spark in a powder keg”. Most recently, in Arup Bhuyan vs State of Assam (2011), the Court read down a provision in the TADA criminalizing membership of a banned association to only apply to cases where an individual was responsible for incitement to imminent violence (a standard borrowed from the American case of Brandenburg).[GB1]

Lastly, in 2015,  we have seen the first instance of the application of Section 144 of the CrPC to online speech. The wide wording of the section was used in Gujarat to pre-emptively block mobile internet services, in the wake of Hardik Patel’s Patidar agitation for reservations. Despite the fact that website blocking is specifically provided for by Section 69A of the IT Act, and its accompanying rules, the Gujarat High Court upheld the state action.

The following conclusions emerge:

(1)  “Public Order” under Article 19(2) is a term of art, and refers to a situation of public tranquility/public peace, that goes beyond simply law-breaking

(2)  Prior restraint in the interests of public order is justified under Article 19(2), subject to a test of proximity; by virtue of the Gujarat High Court judgment in 2015, prior restraint extends to the online sphere as well

(3)  The proximity test requires the relationship between speech and public order to be imminent, or like a spark in a powder keg

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