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R Rajagopal And Ors Vs State Of Tamil Nadu And Ors: Freedom Of Speech And Expression Can Be Implemented Even If It Violates The Right To Privacy

Aditya Chaudhari ,
  12 November 2021       Share Bookmark

Court :
Supreme Court
Brief :

Citation :
AIR 1995 SC 264 (1994) 6 SCC 632 (1995) 2 SCJ 86

Date of Judgement:
7 October 1994

Coram:
Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy
Justice S.C. Sen, JJ

Parties:
Appellant – R. Rajagopal alias R.R. Gopal and Another
Respondent – State of Tamil Nadu and Others

Subject

The Supreme Court, in this case, observed that Freedom of Speech and Expression can be implemented even if it violates the ‘Right to privacy.’

Legal Provisions

  • Article 19 (1) (a): Freedom of speech and expression; read with Article 19(2) which authorizes the government to impose, by law, reasonable restrictions upon the freedom of speech and expression.
  • Article 21: The right to life and personal liberty. This was also to imply the inclusion of the right to privacy as per the Court.
  • Section 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code: Defamation as an offense.

Overview

  • The Petitioners, who were the editors of a weekly Tamil magazine called Nakkheeran, intended to publish the autobiography of Auto Shankar, a convicted serial killer, charged with the six murders and sentenced to death by the Session Judge and which was further confirmed by the Madras High Court.
  • The autobiography revealed the prisoner’s connections with several State officials, many of whom had been his partners in illegal acts.
  • In this case, there were three respondents, i.e., State of Tamil Nadu, Inspector General of the Prison, and Superintendent of Prisons (Central Prison).
  • The Inspector-General of Prisons issued the Petitioners a warning letter that Auto Shankar had not written the said autobiography. If it was published, legal action would be taken against the Petitioners.
  • The Petitioners claim that the autobiography was written by Auto Shankar while in prison and had requested his wife to publish it in the Petitioners’ magazine.
  • The Petitioners realized that the officials would interfere with the publication. In order to restrain them, the petitioners filed a writ petition before the Madras High Court to safeguard their freedom to print the autobiography, which they claimed was guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution.
  • The single Judge dismissed the petition because of objections relating to maintainability.
  • The matter then came before the Supreme Court when the Petitioners under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution sought to restrain the respondent from interfering with the publication of the life story of the prisoner named “Auto Shankar.”

Issue

  • Whether any person could prevent another person from writing their autobiography if such unauthorized writing infringes the person's right to privacy?
  • Whether the press was entitled to publish an unauthorized account of a person's life by the freedom of the press guaranteed by Article 19 (1) (a), and in case such publication leads to violation of the right to privacy or defamation, were there any remedies available?
  • Whether such writing amounts to defamation?
  • Could the State or the public officials maintain an action for defamation and place a prior restraint on the press to prevent publication of defamatory material?
  • Whether prison officials were entitled to act on behalf of a prisoner and prevent the publication of the life story of a prisoner to protect his rights?

Judgment Analysis

  • The Apex Court held the petitioners have the right to publish the autobiography of the Auto Shankar since it is a part of the public record even without his consent or authorization.
  • The right to privacy is a fundamental right implicit in Article 21, i.e., the right to life and personal liberty. No person can publish any private information without consent. But there is an exception to it, i.e., if the publication includes the matter related to public records, then the right to privacy no longer exists.
  • Further, the Court denied the State a right to impose a prior restriction on the proposed publication, while referring to New York Times v. United States ([1971] 40 U.S. 713) which stated that "any system of prior restraints of (freedom of) expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity" and that the State "carries a heavy burden of showing justification for the imposition of such a restraint.”
  • The Court held that any remedy for defamation would arise only after the publication.
  • The Court held that privacy is a “right to be let alone” and that no one could publish anything referring to an individual’s private affairs without the consent of the person concerned unless it was based upon public records.
  • Further, it held that public officials did not have a right to privacy or a remedy for damages concerning the conduct involved in the discharge of their official duties.

Conclusion

Freedom of the press is a fundamental right that the court should uphold as it serves the public interest at large. It is an important right that must be protected in a democratic society like India.In this case, we see that the judgment favours the petitioners, and later, the autobiography was published as it was, without any changes. However, the court had not paid much attention to what might happen if the autobiography was released and may cause defamation to the plaintiff. Though they may be sued later, much damage would have already been generated.

The court has completely ignored the issue of whether Shankar wrote the biography. This was very important to know the intention and thus calculate whether any defamation may occur due to the defendant’s malice or someone else’s.

Click here to download the original copy of the judgement

Questions:
1. In which judgment was the right to privacy was declared as a fundamental right by the Supreme Court of India?
2. Which Article deals with the right to life and personal liberty?

 
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