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How wise is contempt of court notice against social media content

Recently, the Supreme Court issued a contempt notice against a former judge, Justice Markandey Katju, who has gained notoriety on social media for making some very controversial remarks on various issues. Some of these remarks include “Gandhi was a British agent”, “Kashmir and Bihar should be offered to Pakistan as a package deal”, “90 per cent of Indians are idiots”, and so on. Latest comment to attract media attention was his post on social networking site Facebook in which he called a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court “one of the most corrupt judges in India”.  Former judge, Justice Markandey Katju has since then made many insinuations against the Supreme Court judge on facebook. This was followed by issue of the contempt notice against him.

According to the apex court, the right to free speech in India cannot be used to “scandalise the court”, that is, no person is allowed to say anything that lowers the dignity of the court or shakes public confidence in the judiciary. This has offered an opportunity to the Supreme Court to reconsider whether the defamatory and scandalous abuse of the judiciary by a judge should attract summary punishment under Indian law. In previous instances when such a question came up to the apex court across the world, it was decided that contempt of court should not be used to protect the dignity of courts because hyping such things will only  give them greater publicity, and that the court must rest on surer foundations etc.

In independent India, during the making of the Constitution, contempt of court was made an exception to the right to free speech. Surely, the courts must have adequate powers to preserve and protect the dignity, respect and decorum of day-to-day proceedings and the institution itself. We certainly cannot allow a person to fling a shoe or ink at a judge hearing a case, or call him corrupt in an open court or shout slogans during ongoing court proceedings. Such a person must be appropriately penalized to prevent its reoccurrence. But perhaps the scurrilous, wild abuse on judges on various tools of social media websites are best left ignored.

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