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Free speech is not an absolute right: SC

Noting that free speech is not an absolute right, the Supreme Court on Thursday held that poetic licence does not mean having nationally revered figures like Mahatma Gandhi mouth obscene words.

The apex court said in its judgment that when the name of Mahatma Gandhi is alluded to or used as a symbol speaking or using obscene words, the test of “contemporary community standards” of what is vulgar and obscene language becomes applicable with more vigour.

A Bench of Justices Dipak Misra and P.C. Pant set these standards while considering the plea of Devidas Ramachandra Tuljapurkar, who was charged with publishing the “obscene” Marathi poem titled Gandhi Mala Bhetala (I Met Gandhi) in which the Mahatma is a character. The poem was published in 1994 in an in-house bank magazine.

‘Subject to limitations’

The verdict said freedom of speech and expression has to be given a broad canvas, but it is also subject to inherent limitations within the constitutional parameters.

Here, Justice Misra wrote in the judgment, the author uses historically respected persons as a medium to mouth obscene words. Hence, creativity melts into insignificance and obscenity emerges to the surface.

Mr. Tuljapurkar’s counsel Gopal Subramanium argued that a historical personality cannot be an “impediment” to a citizen’s right to free speech.

“Poetry encouraged fearlessness of expression, and this cannot be restricted because of the use of the name of a personality. Freedom to offend is also a part of freedom of speech,” Mr. Subramanium had argued.