SC petition challenging criminal contempt withdrawn

Petitioners denied liberty to approach the apex court again, but are at liberty to file petition before HC


The petition challenging provisions of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 filed by N Ram, Senior Advocate Prashant Bhushan and Arun Shourie, has been withdrawn by the petitioners. Senior Advocate Rajeev Dhawan appearing for the petitioners, before a bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra, BR Gavai and Krishna Murari, said, “At present many cases are before your lordships, so I don’t want this matter to get entangled with the others, or vice versa, this is not the appropriate stage to take this up. I seek liberty to file it at a later stage.” The same bench is hearing two contempt cases against Bhushan and the matter is pending. The case was initially listed before a bench comprising Justice DY Chandrachud and KM Joseph but was removed from that bench and moved to the bench led by Justice Mishra. The registry said that the case should have been listed before the Justice Mishra bench as it was considering the contempt case against Bhushan.

The petition challenged the constitutionality of the offence of ‘scandalising the court’ under section 2(c)(i) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 as being vague, arbitrary, subjective and leading to violation of fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Criminal contempt is defined under the Act as:

publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which

(i) scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or

(ii) prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or

(iii) interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner

The petition had argued that the offence of ‘scandalising the court’ failed the test of over-breadth; abridges the right to free speech in the absence of real and tangible harm and creates a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of speech and expression. The petition further stated that the offence was rooted in colonial assumptions which have no place in a democracy. The petitioners further argued that the provision invited different readings and applications which made it vague and hence was violative of Article 14 of the Constitution which demands equal treatment and non-arbitrariness.

The petition juxtaposed two cases of criminal contempt, in which ‘scandalising the court’s was read into and interpreted differently. In PN Dua v. P Shiv Shankar, the respondent who was a Law Minster was held not guilty despite referring to apex court judges as “anti-social elements, FERA violators, bride burners and horde of reactionaries. While in DC Saxena vs. Chief Justice of India, the respondent was held guilty of criminal contempt for alleging that a Chief Justice was corrupt and that an FIR should be lodged against him.

The bench allowed the petitioners to withdraw the petition but without liberty to file it before the Supreme Court again. Hence, Dhavan sought liberty to file it before the High Court and the same was granted. “It’s an important issue, hence the question must be kept open and decided at the appropriate time,” said Dhavan, as reported by LiveLaw.

This petition was filed by the petitioners after the court initiated suo moto proceedings of contempt against Bhushan over two tweets posted by him about the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice of India. The court has reserved orders in the case.


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