The Madras High Court’s ruling that bans the use of “photographs or pictures” of living persons on “banners, flex boards, signboards” across the state is a case of judicial overreach. Only images of the dead are, hereafter, allowed to be mounted freely. The implications of this order are far-reaching in a state like Tamil Nadu where visual imagery is an essential aspect of public communication, both political and non-political.
Indeed, as the court points out in its ruling, there is a state law against the defacing of “open places”, which mandates that permission ought to be taken from municipal authorities before flex boards etc are raised. State and municipal authorities can use this law judiciously to ensure that overzealous cadres of a political outfit or star-crazed fans do not deface the landscape or threaten public safety by putting up over-sized banners, flex boards or sign boards to declare their allegiance and affection.
At issue was a small matter of political flags and banners put up outside a property in the Chennai neighbourhood of Arumbakkam, which the owner objected to. It should have been resolved by local municipal officers and the police, but it escalated to a court suit and the court has expanded upon the theme in a manner which appears to infringe upon the right to free expression. No doubt, the privacy and the rights of the petitioner had to be protected, but could it not have been resolved within the framework of existing regulation? Political messaging is part of the landscape of modern society, and the images of people that one may dislike are part of the panorama.
Personal dislike alone cannot be a reasonable ground for banning such images. Legitimate grounds do exist, of course. Political graffiti, which had turned urban West Bengal into a photographer’s paradise, eventually took on the proportions of visual pollution and had to be curbed, especially because it defaced private property. Imagery which distract drivers are frowned upon, too. Advertisements seen as distracting drivers have been taken down in the past in many countries.
But these are extreme cases, and the curb on images in Tamil Nadu may be guilty of extrapolating a draconian general principle from a specific instance, and infringing on free speech in the process. Some other ill-advised court may now take it as a precedent, and enlarge further on the matter. The implications for the freedom of expression, both the personal and the political, could be sobering.