“Analyzing the Prashant Bhushan Contempt of Court Case”

Prashant Bhushan, the individual accused of contempt, is an experienced senior advocate with over thirty years of involvement in public interest litigation across various high-profile cases. On July 22, 2020, a petition was lodged against both Prashant Bhushan and Twitter Inc. in the Supreme Court of India, drawing attention to two tweets posted by Bhushan. And he was held guilty  for these tweets, directed at the Chief Justice of India (CJI) and the Supreme Court, underscored a perceived deterioration in the judiciary’s independence and its role in safeguarding Indian democracy.

FACTS:

Prashant Bhushan posted a tweet, on his tweeter handle, on 27th June 2020 that, 

“When historians in future look back at the last 6 years to see how democracy has been destroyed in India even without a formal Emergency, they will particularly mark the role of the Supreme Court in this destruction & more particularly the role of the last 4 CJIs.”

And 2 days later on 29th June 2020 he posted a picture of CJI Justice S.A Bobde riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and tweeted that,  “ CJI rides a 50 lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur, without a mask or helmet, at a time when he keeps the SC in lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access Justice!”

These tweets sparked controversy and led to a contempt petition filed against Bhushan by Advocate Mahek Maheshwari on 21st July 2020, alleging that Bhushan’s tweets were aimed at spreading hatred and engaging in a “cheap publicity stunt.” Additionally, the petition targeted Twitter for not removing the alleged tweets. However, the Supreme Court observed that the petition lacked the prior sanction of the Attorney General of India and decided to take suo motu cognizance of Bhushan’s tweets instead.

Consequently, a bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra, B.R Gavai, and Krishna Murari prima facie found Bhushan’s tweets capable of undermining the dignity and authority of the Supreme Court, thereby bringing the administration of justice into disrepute. The court issued notices to Bhushan and Twitter to respond to the allegations by August 5, 2020, and also requested the Attorney General to assist the court in the matter.

After finding Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt in a ruling dated August 20, the Court requested him to provide an unconditional apology. However, when he declined to do so, the Court, in a judgement dated August 31, 2020, imposed a nominal fine of INR 1 on him. Failure to pay the fine would result in a three-month simple imprisonment term for Bhushan, along with a three-year ban from practicing law in the Supreme Court. Which was duly paid by Prashant Bhushan. And Tweeter Inc. was discharged.

ISSEUES RAISED:

1. Did Prashant Bhushan’s tweets constitute contempt of court under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971?

2. Does the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution protect criticism of the judiciary, particularly when it pertains to issues of public interest and accountability?

3. Is there a need for clearer guidelines and safeguards to ensure that contempt powers are not misused to stifle legitimate criticism and dissent?

4. Should the judiciary exercise its inherent power to punish for contempt as a necessary tool to protect its independence and authority, or does this pose a threat to freedom of speech and expression?

CONTENTIONS:

Contention 1:- (Prashant Bhushan)

Regarding his tweet dated 27.06.2020, Prashant Bhushan asserts that it was posted with the sincere intention of expressing his belief that democracy in India has significantly deteriorated over the past six years. He also contends that the Supreme Court has not fulfilled its role as the guardian of the constitution, thereby contributing to the decline of democracy. Additionally, he argues that criticizing the performance of the last four Chief Justices of India does not amount to contempt of court, as every citizen in a democracy has the right to discuss the state of institutions openly. He further emphasizes that equating the Chief Justice of India with the Supreme Court undermines the institution’s integrity.

Regarding his tweet dated 29.06.2020, Bhushan explains that it was made to express his frustration with the Supreme Court’s non-physical functioning for over three months, which resulted in the neglect of fundamental rights of citizens, such as those in detention. He clarifies that posting the photo of the Chief Justice riding a motorcycle was meant to highlight the inconsistency of the situation, where the Court remained virtually in lockdown due to COVID-19 precautions while the Chief Justice appeared in public without a mask. Bhushan maintains that expressing his frustration in this manner does not constitute contempt of court and argues that deeming it as such would violate his fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression as an unreasonable restriction.

Contention 2:- (tweeter Inc.)

The tweeter inc. contended that :

  • It is a worldwide platform that offers a micro-blogging service for users to express their thoughts and communicate with each other. It is classified as an “intermediary” as per section 2(w) of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and therefore, it is not the creator or initiator of the tweets in question. 
  • The platform does not exercise editorial control over the tweets and simply serves as a medium for display.
  •  Following the court’s order dated 22.07.2020, the platform not only restricted access to the tweets in question but also disabled them.

RATIONALE:

Under the Indian Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, any action that scandalizes, lowers, prejudices, interferes with, or obstructs the administration of justice is considered as ‘criminal contempt’. Article 215 and 129 of the Constitution of India grant the High Courts and Supreme Court the inherent authority for ‘judicial self-dealing’ as a constitutional right, allowing them to initiate contempt proceedings suo moto. This authority is bestowed upon the courts to maintain their dignity and prevent any erosion of public confidence in the administration of justice.

The Supreme Court, in its judgment, acknowledged the importance of freedom of speech and expression in a democracy. However, it held that this right was not absolute and must be exercised responsibly, especially by individuals holding influential positions like lawyers. The court emphasized that criticism of the judiciary is permissible, but it must be fair, responsible, and based on true facts. It also noted that Bhushan’s tweets crossed the line by undermining the dignity and authority of the judiciary.

The Court ultimately treated criticism directed at judges as criticism of the Court itself, dismissing Prashant Bhushan’s contention that remarks on the behavior of judges in their personal capacities do not harm the administration of justice.

The court further reasoned that contempt of court is essential to uphold the majesty and integrity of the judicial institution. It held that when criticism of the judiciary undermines public confidence in the institution or obstructs the administration of justice, it constitutes contempt and must be punished to maintain the rule of law. The court asserted its inherent power to punish for contempt as a necessary tool to protect its independence and authority.

DEFECTS OF LAW:

While the judgment upheld the power of the judiciary to punish for contempt, it also raised concerns about the broad and vague nature of contempt laws in India. The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, grants wide discretion to the courts in determining what constitutes contempt, leading to potential abuse of power and suppression of legitimate criticism. The lack of clear guidelines for distinguishing between fair criticism and contemptuous speech leaves room for subjective interpretation by judges, which can have a chilling effect on freedom of speech.

Moreover, the judgment did not address the issue of the disproportionate use of contempt powers by the judiciary to silence dissenting voices. Critics argue that the judiciary, as an institution of power, should be open to scrutiny and criticism, and the threat of contempt proceedings should not be used to stifle legitimate dissent or whistle-blowing.

INFERENCE:

The inference drawn from the Prashant Bhushan contempt case reflects the complex interplay between freedom of speech and the judiciary’s authority to maintain its dignity and integrity. While individuals, including lawyers and activists like Prashant Bhushan, have the right to criticize the judiciary as part of the democratic discourse, such criticism must be fair, responsible, and based on factual accuracy. 

The judgment reaffirms the Importance of upholding the authority and independence of the judiciary, particularly in a democracy like India, where the judiciary plays a crucial role in safeguarding constitutional values. The court’s assertion of its inherent power to punish for contempt is seen as essential to protect the institution’s integrity and maintain public confidence in the administration of justice.

However, the case also highlights the need for clearer guidelines and safeguards to prevent the misuse of contempt powers to suppress legitimate criticism and dissent. The broad and ambiguous nature of contempt laws in India raises concerns about potential abuse of power and the chilling effect it may have on freedom of speech.

Moreover, the judgment underscores the importance of fostering a culture of open dialogue and accountability within the judiciary. While criticism should be welcomed as a means to promote transparency and accountability, efforts should be made to distinguish between fair criticism and contemptuous speech to ensure that the judiciary’s authority is respected without unduly stifling dissent.

Ashutosh Sharma 

Amity University, Rajasthan