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A political commentator attacked a Madras HC judge on Twitter, here’s what happened next

Justice GR Swaminathan of the Madras HC initiated suo moto contempt of court proceedings against Savukku Shankar for tweets questioning his integrity

What’s the news? The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on July 19 initiated suo moto contempt of court proceedings against YouTuber and blogger Savukku Shankar for tweets allegedly questioning the integrity of Justice GR Swaminathan. The order was issued by Swaminathan, who remarked that “while even strident criticism is permissible, defamatory vilification is not.”

Why does this matter: Citizens approach courts when their freedom of speech and expression is violated. But when the court itself curbs this freedom by initiating suo moto proceedings for trivial issues, it sheds a bad light on the state of fundamental rights in the country. Ironically, Justice Swaminathan’s order begins with the cartoon embedded below. While the judge included this cartoon to point out that Shankar frequently criticises the judiciary, he unwittingly proves the message in the cartoon.

Which tweet led to this order?  “He has been focusing his gaze on me for the past several months. He had commented on many of my judgements in the most uncharitable language. His attacks have often been personal. Since I am a strong believer and upholding freedom of speech and expression I did not pay heed to them. however his latest tweet appears not crossed the lakshman rekha,” the order stated, referring to the following tweet:

The tweet essentially implies that Justice Swaminathan was influenced by someone else to quash the proceedings in the case involving a YouTuber named Maridhas. “I genuinely felt that Thiru. Shankar was entitled to pass comments on my judgments. But through the offending tweet, Thiru. Shankar has questioned my integrity. He asks me “who I met at 06.00 A.M at Azhagar Koil when I was hearing the case pertaining to Thiru.Maridhas?” By this innuendo, Thiru. Shankar is suggesting that the outcome of the Maridhas case was influenced by the person I am alleged to have met. This is clearly scandalizing the judiciary. Prima facie Thiru. Shankar had committed criminal contempt,” Swaminathan noted.

Social media platforms Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook also impleaded in the case: Justice Swaminathan notes that Shankar’s Twitter account was suspended, but he created an alternative account. “In mythology, whenever the head of an asura is slayed, another one will pop up. Thiru. Savukku Shankar appears to have taken inspiration from such mythological characters,” the judge wrote while attacking social media platforms for not doing enough to take down content posted by Shankar. “These entities have compliance officers and their duty is to ensure that content scandalizing judges and judiciary are not posted and if posted, are taken down,” Swaminathan remarked. “The Registry is directed to implead the above-mentioned social media intermediaries such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Notices shall also be served on them through their compliance officers,” Swaminathan ordered.

Swaminathan doubled down on his criticism of social media platforms by citing the following passage from a blog post by Justice JB Pardiwala:

“This is where the digital and social media needs to be mandatorily regulated in the country to preserve the rule of law under our Constitution. Attacks attempted at Judges for their judgments lead to a dangerous scenario, wherein Judges would have to pay greater attention to what the media thinks rather than what the law actually mandates. This puts the rule of law on the burner, ignoring the sanctity of respect for the Courts.”

MeitY impleaded as well: “The Secretary to Government, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) is also suo motu impleaded in this case. Registry to serve notice on the office of the learned Assistant Solicitor General of India for the Madurai Bench to assist the court,” the judge ordered.

Grounds for the proceedings: “Article 215 of the Constitution of India states that every High Court shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a Court including the power to punish for contempt of itself. In the decision reported in (2021) 1 SCC 745, the Hon’ble Apex Court held that contempt jurisdiction can be exercised when a statement tends to undermine the dignity and authority of the court or when a statement is calculated in order to malign the image of judiciary or when the authority of the court itself is under attack. […] It was also held that the court can very well initiate the proceedings suo motu on the basis of information received by it. It was laid down that a publication which attacks individual Judges or the court as a whole with or without reference to particular case, casting unwarranted and defamatory aspersions upon the character or ability of the judges would come within the term of scandalizing the court. Imputing partiality, bias or improper motives to a judge is scandalization of the court and would be criminal contempt. […] Since I am prima facie satisfied that Thiru. Savukku Shankar had exceeded his limits, I direct the Registry of the Madurai Bench to register a suo motu case of contempt against Thiru. Savukku Shankar,” Justice Swaminathan explained.

Justice Swaminathan defends his work ethic: The judge vehemently defended his work ethic in the order, writing: “For the salary drawn by me and the perquisites enjoyed , I believe I have worked to the fullest. I have been able to achieve this result by sitting from 09.30 A.M onwards and beyond the court hours. Thiru.Shankar had been poking fun at my sitting hours […].” The judge bizarrely also goes on to attack Shankar remarking that he is “getting paid by the State without doing any work” because he was employed in the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti Corruption as a ministerial staff as is getting Subsistence Allowance for the same.

Streisand effect?  The Streisand effect is when an attempt to hide information has the unintended consequence of increasing awareness of that information, especially in the online context. Commentators on Twitter have pointed out that Swaminathan’s order might result in this effect.

What next?  On the date of hearing, which will be notified, Savukku Shankar has to appear in person before the Madras High Court and the compliance officers of the social media platform that have been impleaded can appear through their counsel. “The compliance officers are directed to file an affidavit setting out the details of complaints received by them against Thiru. Savukku Shankar so far and till the date of next hearing. They shall set out the action taken by them on such complaints. They shall also make a statement as to whether they had considered taking suo motu action to uphold and safeguard the dignity of the Indian judiciary,” Justice Swaminathan ordered.

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