Fifty one shades of speech

In the previous piece, this author had raised the following questions in the process of etching the contours of public morality: “The sum and substance of these discussions is that under the framework of the Indian Constitution, it is the State, meaning thereby the Executive and the Legislature but not the Judiciary, which has the power to invoke public morality within reasonable bounds for the purposes of placing reasonable restrictions on fundamental rights guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution. The Judiciary’s role is limited to examining the constitutional validity of the claim made by the State that the latter’s action is in the interest of or furthers public morality. 

That said, what are the parameters that must be applied to such an examination? In other words, how does the State demonstrate that its action represents public morality? What kind of exercise must the State undertake, if at all required by the Constitution, to assess public morality in relation to a given right? Or does the Constitution grant elected representatives the unfettered right as parens patriae i.e. parent of the nation, to speak on behalf of their constituents on every issue merely because they have been elected? Can members of the State form an opinion on public morality in relation to a given issue or topic without consulting members of the society to marshal some form of concrete evidence to base their positions on? Critically, in the context of a diverse society such as Bharat, how can the State hope to do justice to varying and often conflicting positions on public morality?

… Does this mean that the scope of use of public morality by the State as the basis for limiting individual freedoms is limited to public spaces? What is the position of the Indian civilization and the Constitution on the spaces and contexts in which public morality may be used as a legitimate restriction on individual rights? What constitutes public morality within the framework of the Indic civilizational worldview and what are its sources?” 

While the author’s original intent was to address these specific questions in the present piece, a legitimate and related digression is warranted in the current atmosphere to give the discussion a much more relevant and concrete peg. Over the last few days, “hate speech” has become the talk of the town because some have taken offense to the contents of a certain programme which, they believe, target a particular community. While the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and the Hon’ble Supreme Court, are simultaneously, and perhaps incongruously, seized of the case, it may be worthwhile to understand the relationship between speech, culture and public morality. In the interest of fair disclosure, this author is appearing on behalf of a few Intervenors in the proceedings before the Supreme Court. Therefore, in the interest of propriety, he shall desist from commenting on the specific merits of the case. The focus of the instant piece is the meta nexus between speech and civilizational ethos.

 Language, while acting as the vehicle for expression of thought, results in speech. Therefore, speech could be treated as but one form of expression, and for the purposes of the discussion at hand, may be treated as a broad representative of varied forms of expression. To reduce speech to merely a collection of words is to betray one’s ignorance and superficial understanding of human psychology, both individual and collective. Speech, in fact, contains the markers of a civilisation’s journey, depth and the values it believes in. One could go even a step further to make the point that speech is perhaps the most literal, visible, audible and ubiquitous expression of public morality. The lessons, beliefs, achievements, tragedies, the objects of worship and hatred of a people take the shape of similes, idioms, usages, proverbs and even cuss words. Therefore, to police speech, is to police not just the ability to express thought, but thought itself because policing the formers chills and stifles the latter, thereby killing the idea at source. 

Given the implications of policing speech, society is naturally expected to be extremely cautious and selective in handing the right to police its speech and thought to any particular organ as part of its social contract with the State. To hedge against unilateralism and authoritarianism, the republican premise is that it is safer, if not the safest, to put faith in organs which are vulnerable to and are the product of the will of the people, namely the Legislature and the Executive. Even if this choice has the inherent risk of surrendering one’s individual right at the altar of a process which ruthlessly rewards the numerical majority, it still puts faith in the deeper churn of a society and its tendency to see the light through trial and error. Perhaps this is because of the unspoken belief in the existence of a “society” which shares a common minimum pool of values and aspirations, notwithstanding differing political perspectives and ideological persuasions. More often than not, this common minimum pool of shared values and aspirations traces its origins to the fundamental ethos of a people or a civilization i.e. the shared ethos which justify the reason for the existence as a single national/ civilizational, and hence political unit. This demonstrates that politics cannot faithfully and fully reflect the bonds that connect the members of a society. It also explains why as part of a social contract an individual is assumed and expected to submit to the dispensation which the majority has elected even if the individual is at loggerheads with the dispensation’s positions.

 In view of the above rationale, an organ, such as the Judiciary, whose rectitude is its hallmark and is presumed to translate to impartiality and objectivity, cannot, must not and is not designed to attempt to step into the shoes of elected organs. This is not only because it violates the rules of “the” social contract, namely the Constitution, but also because it deprives the people of their say in the process of laying down the law, which partakes significantly, if not solely, from public morality. Critically, since notions of public morality vary from society to society and even within society, only the State, namely the Legislature and the Executive but not the Judiciary, is competent to and mandated to prescribe the red lines of free speech.

 In a brilliant paper titled “Morality as a Legitimate Government Interest” published in Penn State Law Review in 2012, Daniel F. Piar, then a Professor of Law at Yale Law School, examined in detail the United States Supreme Court’s tendency to homogenize moral standards in the name of the Constitution (a.k.a constitutional morality), and concluded as follows:

 “As discussed above, moral diversity yields numerous moral benefits to individuals and to the society that they constitute. To resist the proliferation of moral diversity is to deny that we are a pluralistic society. If we are to remain true to our liberal commitments, we must acknowledge—and accept— that the world is full of matters on which people of reason and good will are apt to disagree. A productive moral diversity then may flourish, to the betterment of each of us and our society. 

The law, however, has trod a more dangerous road, threatening to suppress diverse responses to moral issues through a homogenizing constitutionalism. If society is to retain the social and personal benefits of moral diversity, society will need to be attentive to the points at which the law impedes it, as well as to the opportunities in law for sustaining it.” Why should the logic be any different in the Indian context?

 J. Sai Deepak is an Advocate practising as an arguing counsel before the Supreme Court of India and the High Court of Delhi. 

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