The Delhi High Court on Monday vacated its 2017 gag orders restraining the publication of allegations of sexual harassment against Mumbai-based venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy by multiple women. The judgment was passed by a single bench of Justice Jayant Nath, in a defamation suit filed by Murthy against 18 defendants. Murthy had sought damages amounting to Rs 2.5 crore. (See the interim injunction orders here and here).
The injuncted materials include articles, posts, and journalistic reports containing allegations of sexual harassment against Murthy. These include a LinkedIn post by entrepreneur Ms. Chauhan, a post on IndianCEO.in detailing entrepreneur Ms Iyer’s allegations, and multiple FactorDaily reports, including one reporting on allegations by Ms. Bansal. Chauhan, Iyer, and Bansal, and a Bangalore-based HR executive Ms. Chadha were defendants in the case. Journalists and executives at SheThePeople.tv, and YourStory, and FactorDaily and its (then) editor Pankaj Mishra, were also defendants.
The court said that the women and the publications / defendants “have a right to exercise their right of freedom of speech” and “it would not be reasonable in the facts and circumstances to fetter the narration of alleged facts and comments” by the women and other defendants, the court said. “If these incidents and claims of the said defendants are in trial proved to be false, the plaintiff would have a right to claim damages”. According to the court, Murthy “failed to make out a prima facie case” and the “balance of convenience is also not” in his favour.
The high court said that the facts show that above women “have had an unpleasant or perhaps more than unpleasant experience” with Murthy, and they sought to make them public. “Prima facie, it cannot be said that the said defendants have no case whatsoever or are misusing the freedom of speech to tarnish/defame the plaintiff,” the court said. Murthy has admitted exchange of messages with Chauhan and Iyer, and admitted meeting with Bansal, the order noted.
“Further,it cannot be said that the said defendants are behaving in a malicious or mala fide manner. The plaintiff claims that defendants No.1 and 2 were disgruntled as the plaintiff rejected their business proposals. Hence, they took the step of publishing defamatory posts. This allegation of the plaintiff at this stage appears to be a bald plea”.
“Accordingly, the interim order dated 18.04.2017 and 28.04.2017 is vacated. The present applications are disposed of accordingly.”
According to the Hindustan Times, Murthy will be filing an appeal and has said that “justice will prevail”.
Arrest in molestation case; Bombay HC drops criminal proceedings
In February 2018, Murthy was arrested by the Mumbai Police in connection with a molestation case, and was booked for stalking, outraging the modesty of a woman, and for transmitting obscene material in electronic form. The case had been
registered following a 32-year-old woman’s complaint and the intervention of the National Commission of Women (NCW).
A month after angel investor Mahesh Murthy was granted bail in a sexual harassment case, an author has lodged a complaint with the Mumbai police alleging that Murthy had sexually harassed her 14 years ago.
In September 2019, the Bombay High Court dropped criminal proceedings against Murthy over sexual harassment allegations from 200bar on, citing that the time period for filing of the complaints under the Indian Penal Code had lapsed. Continuing Murthy’s prosecution would be an “abuse of the process of law”, the court had said.
Update at 13:19 on July 9, 2020: We have removed the first names of the woman defendants to protect their privacy. We regret the inconvenience.