Free Speech and Surveillance

Posted by Gautam Bhatia at Jul 07, 2014 04:59 AM |
Gautam Bhatia examines the constitutionality of surveillance by the Indian state.

The Indian surveillance regime has been the subject of discussion for quite some time now. Its nature and scope is controversial. The Central Monitoring System, through which the government can obtain direct access to call records, appears to have the potential to be used for bulk surveillance, although official claims emphasise that it will only be implemented in a targeted manner. The Netra system, on the other hand, is certainly about dragnet collection, since it detects the communication, via electronic media, of certain “keywords” (such as “attack”, “bomb”, “blast” and “kill”), no matter what context they are used in, and no matter who is using them.

Surveillance is quintessentially thought to raise concerns about privacy. Over a series of decisions, the Indian Supreme Court has read in the right to privacy into Article 21’s guarantee of the right to life and personal liberty. Under the Supreme Court’s (somewhat cloudy) precedents, privacy may only be infringed if there is a compelling State interest, and if the restrictive law is narrowly tailored – that is, it does not infringe upon rights to an extent greater than it needs to, in order to fulfill its goal. It is questionable whether bulk surveillance meets these standards.

Surveillance, however, does not only involve privacy rights. It also implicated Article 19 – in particular, the Article 19(1)(a) guarantee of the freedom of expression, and the 19(1)(c) guarantee of the freedom of association.

Previously on this blog, we have discussed the “chilling effect” in relation to free speech. The chilling effect evolved in the context of defamation cases, where a combination of exacting standards of proof, and prohibitive damages, contributed to create a culture of self-censorship, where people would refrain from voicing even legitimate criticism for fear of ruinous defamation lawsuits. The chilling effect, however, is not restricted merely to defamation, but arises in free speech cases more generally, where vague and over-broad statutes often leave the border of the permitted and the prohibited unclear.

Indeed, a few years before it decided New York Times v. Sullivan, which brought in the chilling effect doctrine into defamation and free speech law, the American Supreme Court applies a very similar principle in a surveillance case. In NAACP v. Alabama, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), which was heavily engaged in the civil rights movement in the American deep South, was ordered by the State of Alabama to disclose its membership list. NAACP challenged this, and the Court held in its favour. It specifically connected freedom of speech, freedom of association, and the impact of surveillance upon both:

“Effective advocacy of both public and private points of view, particularly controversial ones, is undeniably enhanced by group association, as this Court has more than once recognized by remarking upon the close nexus between the freedoms of speech and assembly. It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the “liberty” assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech. Of course, it is immaterial whether the beliefs sought to be advanced by association pertain to political, economic, religious or cultural matters, and state action which may have the effect of curtailing the freedom to associate is subject to the closest scrutiny… it is hardly a novel perception that compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy may constitute [an] effective a restraint on freedom of association… this Court has recognized the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations. Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.”

In other words, if persons are not assured of privacy in their association with each other, they will tend to self-censor both who they associate with, and what they say to each other, especially when unpopular groups, who have been historically subject to governmental or social persecution, are involved. Indeed, this was precisely the argument that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made in its constitutional challenge to PRISM, the American bulk surveillance program. In addition to advancing a Fourth Amendment argument from privacy, the ACLU also made a First Amendment freedom of speech and association claim, arguing that the knowledge of bulk surveillance had made – or at least, was likely to have made – politically unpopular groups wary of contacting it for professional purposes (the difficulty, of course, is that any chilling effect argument effectively requires proving a negative).

If this argument holds, then it is clear that Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(c) are prima facie infringed in cases of bulk – or even other forms of – surveillance. Two conclusions follow: first, that any surveillance regime needs statutory backing. Under Article 19(2), reasonable restrictions upon fundamental rights can only be imposed by law, and not be executive fiat (the same argument applies to Article 21 as well).

Assuming that a statutory framework is brought into force, the crucial issue then becomes whether the restriction is a reasonable one, in service of one of the stated 19(2) interests. The relevant part of Article 19(2) permits reasonable restrictions upon the freedom of speech and expression “in the interests of… the security of the State [and] public order.” The Constitution does not, however, provide a test for determining when a restriction can be legitimately justified as being “in the interests of” the security of the State, and of public order. There is not much relevant precedent with respect to the first sub-clause, but there happens to be an extensive – although conflicted – jurisprudence dealing with the public order exception.

One line of cases – characterised by Ramji Lal Modi v. State of UP and Virendra v. State of Punjab – has held that the phrase “for the interests of” is of very wide ambit, and that the government has virtually limitless scope to make laws ostensibly for securing public order (this extends to prior restraint as well, something that Blackstone, writing in the 18th century, found to be illegal!). The other line of cases, such as Superintendent v. Ram Manohar Lohia and S. Rangarajan v. P. Jagjivan Ram, have required the government to satisfy a stringent burden of proof. In Lohia, for instance, Ram Manohar Lohia’s conviction for encouraging people to break a tax law was reversed, the Court holding that the relationship between restricting free speech and a public order justification must be “proximate”. In Rangarajan, the Court used the euphemistic image of a “spark in a powder keg”, to characterise the degree of proximity required. It is evident that under the broad test of Ramji Lal Modi, a bulk surveillance system is likely to be upheld, whereas under the narrow test of Lohia, it is almost certain not to be.

Thus, if the constitutionality of surveillance comes to Court, three issues will need to be decided: first, whether Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(c) have been violated. Secondly – and if so – whether the “security of the State” exception is subject to the same standards as the “public order” exception (there is no reason why it should not be). And thirdly, which of the two lines of precedent represent the correct understanding of Article 19(2)?

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 Here at CIS, he blogs on issues of online freedom of speech and expression.