In this long season of prickliness about matters of free speech, when tweets less than 280 characters are enough to trigger displeasure and worse from the mighty state and mightier judiciary, when slogans land teenagers in jail for sedition, when governments rush in to police areas of social media they ought not to tread, the Bombay High Court has introduced a welcome dose of sanity. And a useful thumb rule: Let the young express their opinions, however intemperate; those in public office in a democracy must chin up to criticism “day in and day out”. A division bench of the HC made those comments while hearing a plea by a Navi Mumbai resident who was booked by the Mumbai and Palghar police for allegedly making offensive remarks against Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and his son. “Will you act against every person who says something on Twitter?” the court asked the state government.
In doing so, the court has underlined a basic premise of democracy — that the fundamental right to free speech available to citizens can, and often will, produce a raucous cacophony. But this noise is a sign of adult societies that do not shrink from the untidiness of divergent opinions, which is a defence against authoritarianism. As societies move increasingly online, where speech is more unfettered than on traditional media, there is all the more reason why governments must ignore verbal exuberance if it does not cross over into inciting violence. Unfortunately, this view, once a part of the political and judicial common sense in India, appears to be in danger, as institutions grow increasingly touchy about criticism. This was illustrated by the contempt case against Prashant Bhushan and the decisions of Attorney-General KK Venugopal, who approved contempt proceedings against stand-up comic Kunal Kamra for mocking the SC’s role in granting bail to Arnab Goswami and has now green-signalled another contempt case against comic artist, Rachita Taneja, who, too, found in the SC’s apparent alacrity to rush to Goswami’s rescue an apt theme for satire. Neither the Supreme Court’s nor the Maharashtra CM’s authority is so brittle that it needs to be defended from a joke or a cartoon or a diatribe.
Free speech is not a favour that the state doles out to the people. It is democracy’s touchstone. Talking back to the powerful is a way for the disenfranchised to claim power, or to contest a consensus that leaves them out. The anxiety about improper speech evident today belies a reluctance of those in power to be held accountable. Let there be noise. As the Bombay HC has emphasised, it is vital to the workings of democracy.
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