Freedom of expression isn’t absolute, Bombay High Court tells netizens

Observing that sometimes those holding public officers are ‘sensitive’, the Bombay High Court, on Thursday, said netizens must maintain the dignity of the posts of Prime Minister and the Chief Minister while criticising them. It further stated that even the judiciary isn't immune to criticism.

A bench of Justices Sambhaji Shinde and Makarand Karnik also said that, India being a democratic country, its citizens have the right to express their views, but the same isn't absolute.

The bench was seized with a plea filed by one Sameet Thakkar, seeking to quash the FIR registered against him for his allegedly derogatory tweets against CM Uddhav Thackeray and his son Aaditya Thackeray.

According to the FIR registered by the VP Marg Police Station, Thakkar has been booked under charges of obscenity and slander.

Appearing for Thakkar, advocate Abhinav Chandrachud submitted that every citizen has the fundamental right to criticise public servants, even if s/he is the PM or the CM. The counsel further added that his client has been booked only for two tweets, which were not obscene as such since abusive language cannot amount to obscenity.

To buttress his argument, Chandrachud referred to a judgment of the Supreme Court, wherein it has specifically said that ‘those holding public offices must be thick skinned.’

Interrupting the counsel, the bench said, "Even if we receive very harsh criticism, it does not mean we need to react to everything. We know if we ignore it, things would pass off."

"But not everyone holding a public office can ignore such things and we cannot expect them to ignore such things. Some people holding public offices can even be very sensitive," the judges noted.

During the course of the hearing, Chandrachud argued that the FIR lodged against his client was lodged by a private person and not the CM. Having heard the submission, Justice Shinde, however, said that no fundamental right in this country is absolute.

"Public authorities must accept the criticism, if the same is fair. But we cannot expect them to accept abusive and unfair criticism. You should understand that your client's fundamental right to express cannot be violating the constitutional rights of others," Justice Shinde remarked.

"People must maintain the dignity of these posts. But these days, some people think it's very easy to gain publicity by posting anything against the PM or the CM. Even we (judiciary) aren't immune from all this," the judges added.

Meanwhile, the police told the bench that it has served a notice to Thakkar, asking him to appear before it to record his statements. Accordingly, the bench noted that since the notice has been issued, there is no point to arrest Thakkar.

The judges will now take up the matter for hearing on October 5.

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