After consenting to multiple contempt of court proceedings for social media posts in the recent past, Attorney General KK Venugopal has said that curbing of free speech on social media is “unbecoming of a healthy democracy”, reported Times of India and NDTV. Venugopal said the contempt proceedings were an option only when someone misused their freedom, thereby leaving the government and courts no other option.
Venugopal has consented to contempt proceedings against comedian Kunal Kamra and more recently, cartoonist Rachita Taneja for being critical of the Supreme Court. Kamra and Taneja’s tweets, in the light of journalist Arnab Goswami getting bail, were flagged by people (mostly law students), asking the Attorney General to consent to initiate contempt proceedings against them.
Curbing free speech on social media will be very wrong for democracy, and citizens should have the freedom to express their views about the workings of the institutions in a democracy, Venugopal reportedly said. He said that he would be “the last person to say social media needs to be regulated in a democracy”, adding that in fact, social media was essential to democracy. However, when someone misuses the freedom, the government could take action under provisions of the law and constitutional courts could resort to contempt proceedings. He refused to support changes in the law that would curtail free speech on any medium, including social media.
Venugopal said he was “fed up” with the requests he has been getting, seeking contempt against contemptuous social media posts. He said that he gave consent only in “extreme cases where there is a deliberate attempt to denigrate the SC or its judges”. He added that he had declined consent in most cases as “freedom of speech is essential in a democracy”, according to TOI. In his remarks to NDTV, he hoped such requests for consent would stop soon.
He said that some people were daring and attempting to invite contempt proceedings through such posts, perhaps referring to Kamra’s tweets. “If the SC initiates contempt action against them on the basis of consent given by me in a few cases it could send a sobering message to all not to abuse the right to free speech on social media platforms,” he reportedly said.
In July this year, advocate Prashant Bhushan was famously subject to contempt proceedings for a tweet critical of Chief Justice SA Bobde. Bhushan refused to apologise, and was subsequently found guilty of contempt. However, he was let go after paying a token ₹1 fine. Since then, the attorney general’s office has received more requests for consent for contempt proceedings against Bhushan, but Venugopal has denied the same. His office has also received requests to initiate proceedings against journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, actor Swara Bhasker, politician Digvijay Singh, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and conservative activist Shefali Vaidhya.
It isn’t clear what Venugopal is trying to convey in his comments to the two publications. The government’s senior-most law officer could be trying to express his displeasure over having to consent to contempt proceedings, especially considering his imminent retirement. In fact, he told NDTV that by the time his tenure as Attorney General ends in June 2021, he will be 90 years old, and that he should not work after that.