Power of contempt of court misused to stifle free speech: Prashant Bhushan

Its jurisdiction is “very dangerous” and it should be abolished, says activist lawyer.

September 03, 2020 10:08 pm | Updated 10:09 pm IST

Prashant Bhushan. File

Prashant Bhushan. File

Activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan, convicted and fined by the Supreme Court for contempt of court, said this power is sometimes misused or abused to stifle free speech or discussion about the judiciary.

He called the contempt of court jurisdiction “very dangerous” and said it should be abolished.

Also read | Is it a sin to apologise, Supreme Court asks Prashant Bhushan

“Every citizen in a democracy, those who are familiar with the working of the judicial system and the Supreme Court, should be able to speak freely but unfortunately that has also been treated as contempt of court by scandalising,” he said.

Accuser, prosecutor and judge

“In this the judge acts as accuser, prosecutor and as a judge,” Mr. Bhushan said at a webinar, “Freedom of Speech and The Indian Judiciary”, organised by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of South Asia.

“It is a very dangerous jurisdiction in which judges act in their own cause and that is why in all countries this power to punish has been abolished. It is only continued in a few countries like India,” he said.

Also read: Pained because I have been grossly misunderstood, says Prashant Bhushan

The top court had imposed a token fine of ₹1 on Mr. Bhushan for his tweets against the judiciary . It asked him to deposit the fine by September 15, failing which he will attract a jail term of three months and debarment from law practice for three years.

He said the power of contempt of court is sometimes abused or misused by the judiciary to stifle free speech or free discussion about the judiciary.

“I am not saying there are no vile or scandalous, scurrilous allegations being made against judges. They are. But they are dismissed for what they are. People understand that these are scurrilous and unsubstantiated allegations. The respect for the judiciary does not stand on the ability of the court to stifle this kind of criticism even it is sometimes scurrilous and unfair,” Mr. Bhushan said.

Editorial: Lapsing into contempt: On punishing Prashant Bhushan

Talking about his tweets, he said it was what he felt was the role of the top court and not protecting democracy in the last six years.

Constitutional validity

The lawyer said the contempt of court should be abolished and it was for this reason that he along with former Union Minister Arun Shourie and veteran journalist N. Ram had filed a plea challenging the constitutional validity of a legal provision dealing with criminal contempt.

“Initially the matter was listed before Justice D.Y. Chandrachud but later it was removed from him and sent before Justice Arun Mishra [who retired on Wednesday] whose views on this contempt are well known and earlier also he had accused me of scandalising and contempt of court just because I had told former CJIs Justice JS Khehar, Dipak Misra and him that they should not hear a case due to conflict of interest,” he said.

Mr. Bhushan said he is hopeful that this focus on the business of scandalising the court will lead to reform in the law and abolish this part of criminal contempt as it is an unreasonable restriction on freedom of speech.

Also read: The Hindu Explains | What is contempt of court?

Renowned author Arundhati Roy also spoke and said it is pity that in India of 2020 should have to gather to discuss something as primitive as the right to free speech.

“Surely this is the most fundamental block of a functioning democracy,” she said.

Mr. Bhushan had said on Monday he would submit the token fine but also indicated he would file a review plea against the order.

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