- Apprentice Lawyer
In a significant development, the Karnataka High Court on Tuesday sought the response of the Central government in a petition challenging the validity of Section 2(c)(i) of Contempt of Courts Act, which criminalises publication of any matter which could scandalize or lower the authority of the courts.
The petition filed by journalist Krishna Prasad, Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan, Hindu Group Director and journalist N Ram and former Union Minister Arun Shourie has assailed the provision on the ground that it has a chilling effect on the right to freedom of speech under Article 19 of the Constitution.
A Bench headed by Chief Justice AS Oka issued notice to the Centre and posted the case for further hearing in February 2021.
The Contempt of Courts Act provides for two kinds of contempt – civil contempt and criminal contempt.
Civil contempt is defined under Section 2(b) as wilful disobedience to any judgment, order or direction, of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court.
Section 2(c) deals with criminal contempt and deals with publication of any material or commission of any act against courts.
This provision has three sub-clauses which explain when such a publication or act could amount to criminal contempt. First, if such publication or act scandalises or lowers the authority of any court (sub –clause i), second, if it prejudices or interferes with any judicial proceeding (sub-clause ii) and third, if it interferes with or obstructs the administration of justice (sub-clause iii).
The petitioners have challenged only sub-clause (i) which criminalises any publication or act on the ground that it scandalizes or lowers the authority of the court.
The provision, it has been contended, has extremely wide import and is incapable of objective interpretation. The plea states,
“For example, a mere interrogation by a traffic constable about whether the red beacon on the hood of a judge’s car was held to be contempt on the ground of scandalizing the court."
The petitioners have also prayed for framing rules and guidelines that define the process that superior courts must employ while taking criminal contempt action, keeping in mind the principles of natural justice and fairness.
In August 2020, Bhushan, Ram and Shourie had moved the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the very same provision. They, however, withdrew the petition later with the apex court granting them liberty to approach the High Court on the issue.
Bhushan was in the limelight last year after a criminal contempt of court case was initiated against him for his tweets criticising the Supreme Court and Chief Justice of India SA Bobde. The top court convicted him for the same and imposed a token punishment of a fine of Re 1 after Bhushan refused to apologise to the Court.