Free Speech and Civil Defamation

Does defamation become a tool in powerful hands to suppress criticism? Gautam Bhatia examines the strict and unrealistic demands of defamation law, and concludes that defamation suits are a weapon to silence dissent and bad press.

Previously on this blog, we have discussed one of the under-analysed aspects of Article 19(2) – contempt of court. In the last post, we discussed the checking – or “watchdog” – function of the press. There is yet another under-analysed part of 19(2) that we now turn to – one which directly implicates the press, in its role as public watchdog. This is the issue of defamation.

Unlike contempt of court – which was a last-minute insertion by Ambedkar, before the second reading of the draft Constitution in the Assembly – defamation was present in the restrictions clause since the Fundamental Rights Sub-Committee’s first draft, in 1947. Originally, it accompanied libel and slander, before the other two were dropped for the simpler “reasonable restrictions… in the interests of… defamation.” Unlike the other restrictions, which provoked substantial controversy, defamation did not provoke extended scrutiny by the Constituent Assembly.

In hindsight, that was a lapse. In recent years, defamation lawsuits have emerged as a powerful weapon against the press, used primarily by individuals and corporations in positions of power and authority, and invariably as a means of silencing criticism. For example, Hamish MacDonald’s The Polyester Prince, a book about the Ambanis, was unavailable in Indian bookshops, because of threats of defamation lawsuits. In January, Bloomsbury withdrew The Descent of Air India, which was highly critical of ex-Aviation Minister Praful Patel, after the latter filed a defamation lawsuit. Around the same time, Sahara initiated a 200 crore lawsuit against Tamal Bandyopadhayay, a journalist with The Mint, for his forthcoming book, Sahara: The Untold Story. Sahara even managed to get a stay order from a Calcutta High Court judge, who cited one paragraph from the book, and ruled that “Prima facie, the materials do seem to show the plaintiffs in poor light.” The issue has since been settled out of Court. Yet there is no guarantee that Bandyopadhyay would have won on merits, even with the absurd amount claimed as damages, given that a Pune Court awarded damages of Rs. 100 crores to former Justice P.B. Sawant against the Times Group, for a fifteen-second clip by a TV channel that accidentally showed his photograph next to the name of a judge who was an accused in a scam. What utterly takes the cake, though, is Infosys serving legal notices to three journalistic outlets recently, asking for damages worth Rs. 200 crore for “loss of reputation and goodwill due to circulation of defamatory articles.”

Something is very wrong here. The plaintiffs are invariably politicians or massive corporate houses, and the defendants are invariably journalists or newspapers. The subject is always critical reporting. The damages claimed (and occasionally, awarded) are astronomical – enough to cripple or destroy any business – and the actual harm is speculative. A combination of these factors, combined with a broken judicial system in which trials take an eternity to progress, leading to the prospect of a lawsuit hanging perpetually over one’s head, and financial ruin just around the corner, clearly has the potential to create a highly effective chilling effect upon newspapers, when it come to critical speech on matters of public interest.

One of the reasons that this happens, of course, is that extant defamation law allows it to happen. Under defamation law, as long as a statement is published, is defamatory (that is, tending to lower the reputation of the plaintiff in the minds of reasonable people) and refers to the plaintiff, a prima facie case of defamation is made out. The burden then shifts to the defendant to argue a justification, such as truth, or fair comment, or privileged communication. Notice that defamation, in this form, is a strict liability offence: that is, the publisher cannot save himself even if he has taken due care in researching and writing his story. Even an inadvertent factual error can result in liability. Furthermore, there are many things that straddle a very uncomfortable barrier between “fact” and “opinion” (“opinions” are generally not punishable for defamation): for example, if I call you “corrupt”, have I made a statement of fact, or one of opinion? Much of reporting – especially political reporting – falls within this slipstream.

The legal standard of defamation, therefore, puts almost all the burden upon the publisher, a burden that will often be impossible to discharge – as well as potentially penalising the smallest error. Given the difficulty in fact-checking just about everything, as well as the time pressures under which journalists operate, this is an unrealistic standard. What makes things even worse, however, is that there is no cap on damages, and that the plaintiff need not even demonstrate actual harm in making his claims. Judges have the discretion to award punitive damages, which are meant to serve both as an example and as a deterrent. When Infosys claims 2000 crores, therefore, it need not show that there has been a tangible drop in its sales, or that it has lost an important and lucrative contract – let alone showing that the loss was caused by the defamatory statement. All it needs to do is make abstract claims about loss of goodwill and reputation, which are inherently difficult to verify either way, and it stands a fair chance of winning.

A combination of onerous legal standards and crippling amounts in damages makes the defamation regime a very difficult one for journalists to operate freely in. We have discussed before the crucial role that journalists play in a system of free speech whose underlying foundation is the maintenance of democracy: a free press is essential to maintaining a check upon the actions of government and other powerful players, by subjecting them to scrutiny and critique, and ensuring that the public is aware of important facts that government might be keen to conceal. In chilling journalistic speech, therefore, defamation laws strike at the heart of Article 19(1)(a). When considering what the appropriate standards ought to be, a Court therefore must consider the simple fact that if defamation – as it stands today – is compromising the core of 19(1)(a) itself, then it is certainly not a “reasonable restriction” under 19(2) (some degree of proportionality is an important requirement for 19(2) reasonableness, as the Court has held many times).

This is not, however, a situation unique to India. In Singapore, for instance, “[political] leaders have won hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages in defamation cases against critics and foreign publications, which they have said are necessary to protect their reputations from unfounded attacks” – the defamation lawsuit, indeed, was reportedly a legal strategy used by Lee Kuan Yew against political opponents.

Particularly in the United States, the European Union and South Africa, however, this problem has been recognised, and acted upon. In the next post, we shall examine some of the legal techniques used in those jurisdictions, to counter the chilling effect that strict defamation laws can have on the press.

We discussed the use of civil defamation laws as weapons to stifle a free and critical press. One of the most notorious of such instances also birthed one of the most famous free speech cases in history: New York Times v. Sullivan. This was at the peak of the civil rights movement in the American South, which was accompanied by widespread violence and repression of protesters and civil rights activists. A full-page advertisement was taken out in the New York Times, titled Heed Their Rising Voices, which detailed some particularly reprehensible acts by the police in Montgomery, Alabama. It also contained some factual errors. For example, the advertisement mentioned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been arrested seven times, whereas he had only been arrested four times. It also stated that the Montgomery police had padlocked students into the university dining hall, in order to starve them into submission. That had not actually happened. On this basis, Sullivan, the Montgomery police commissioner, sued for libel. The Alabama courts awarded 500,000 dollars in damages. Because five other people in a situation similar to Sullivan were also suing, the total amount at stake was three million dollars – enough to potentially boycott the New York Times, and certainly enough to stop it from publishing about the civil rights movement.

In his book about the Sullivan case, Make No Law, Anthony Lewis notes that the stakes in the case were frighteningly high. The civil rights movement depended, for its success, upon stirring public opinion in the North. The press was just the vehicle to do it, reporting as it did on excessive police brutality against students and peaceful protesters, practices of racism and apartheid, and so on. Sullivan was a legal strategy to silence the press, and its weapon of choice was defamation law.

In a 9 – 0 decision, the Supreme Court found for the New York Times, and changed the face of free speech law (and, according to Lewis, saved the civil rights movement). Writing for the majority, Justice Brennan made the crucial point that in order to survive, free speech needed “breathing space” – that is, the space to make errors. Under defamation law, as it stood, “the pall of fear and timidity imposed upon those who would give voice to public criticism [is] an atmosphere in which the First Amendment freedoms cannot survive.” And under the burden of proving truth, “would-be critics of official conduct may be deterred from voicing their criticism, even though it is believed to be true and even though it is, in fact, true, because of doubt whether it can be proved in court or fear of the expense of having to do so. They tend to make only statements which "steer far wider of the unlawful zone." For these reasons, Justice Brennan laid down an “actual malice” test for defamation – that is, insofar as the statement in question concerned the conduct of a public official, it was actionable for defamation only if the publisher either knew it was false, or published it with “reckless disregard” for its veracity. After New York Times, this standard has expanded, and the press has never lost a defamation case.

There are some who argue that in its zeal to protect the press against defamation lawsuits by the powerful, the Sullivan court swung the opposite way. In granting the press a near-unqualified immunity to say whatever it wanted, it subordinated the legitimate interests of people to their reputation and their dignity to an intolerable degree, and ushered in a regime of media unaccountability. This is evidently what the South African courts felt. In Khulamo v. Holomisa, Justice O’Regan accepted that the common law of defamation would have to be altered so as to reflect the new South African Constitution’s guarantees of the freedom of speech. Much like Justice Brennan, she noted that the media are important agents in ensuring that government is open, responsive and accountable to the people as the founding values of our Constitution require”, as well as the chilling effect in requiring journalists to prove the truth of everything they said. Nonetheless, she was not willing to go as far as the American Supreme Court did. Instead, she cited a previous decision by the Supreme Court of Appeals, and incorporated a “resonableness standard” into defamation law. That is, “if a publisher cannot establish the truth, or finds it disproportionately expensive or difficult to do so, the publisher may show that in all the circumstances the publication was reasonable.  In determining whether publication was reasonable, a court will have regard to the individual’s interest in protecting his or her reputation in the context of the constitutional commitment to human dignity.  It will also have regard to the individual’s interest in privacy.  In that regard, there can be no doubt that persons in public office have a diminished right to privacy, though of course their right to dignity persists.  It will also have regard to the crucial role played by the press in fostering a transparent and open democracy.  The defence of reasonable publication avoids therefore a winner-takes-all result and establishes a proper balance between freedom of expression and the value of human dignity.  Moreover, the defence of reasonable publication will encourage editors and journalists to act with due care and respect for the individual interest in human dignity prior to publishing defamatory material, without precluding them from publishing such material when it is reasonable to do so.”

The South African Constitutional Court thus adopts a middle path between the two opposite zero-sum games that are traditional defamation law, and American first amendment law. A similar effort was made in the United Kingdom – the birthplace of the common law of defamation – with the passage of the 2013 Defamation Act. Under English law, the plaintiff must now show that there is likely to be “serious harm” to his reputation, and there is also public interest exception.

While South Africa and the UK try to tackle the problem at the level of standards for defamation, the ECHR has taken another, equally interesting tack: by limiting the quantum of damages. In Tolstoy Milolasky v. United Kingdom, it found a 1.5 million pound damage award “disproportionately large”, and held that there was a violation of the ECHR’s free speech guarantee that could not be justified as necessary in a democratic society.

Thus, constitutional courts the world over have noticed the adverse impact traditional defamation law has on free speech and a free press. They have devised a multiplicity of ways to deal with this, some more speech-protective than others: from America’s absolutist standards, to South Africa’s “reasonableness” and the UK’s “public interest” exceptions, to the ECHR’s limitation of damages. It is about time that the Indian Courts took this issue seriously: there is no dearth of international guidance.


Gautam Bhatia — @gautambhatia88 on Twitter — is a graduate of the National Law School of India University (2011), and has just received an LLM from the Yale Law School. He blogs about the Indian Constitution at http://indconlawphil.wordpress.com. Here at CIS, he blogs on issues of online freedom of speech and expression.

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