Don’t SLAPP free speech

Posted by Sunil Abraham at Feb 28, 2013 11:22 AM |
IIPM is proving adept at the tactical use of lawsuits to stifle criticism, despite safeguards. THE DEPARTMENT of Telecommunications, on 14 February, issued orders to block certain web pages critical of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM).
Don’t SLAPP free speech

Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

Sunil Abraham's column with inputs from Snehashish Ghosh was published in Tehelka on February 3, 2013 (Issue 9 Volume 10)

Despite our best efforts, we have not managed to get a copy of the court order. Meanwhile, there has been a lot of speculation among Internet policy experts on Twitter. What is the title of the case? Which judge issued the order? Who is the affected party? Why have mainstream media houses like Outlook not been served notice by the court? Is the infamous Section 66A of the IT Act to be blamed? That is highly unlikely. News reports suggest that a lower court in Gwalior has issued an ad interim injunction in a defamation suit. Most experts agree that this is a SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) suit, where a company uses the cost of mounting a legal defence to silence critics.

Bullies with deep pockets use the law in very creative ways, such as forum shopping, forum shifting and the use of proxies. Forum shopping can be best understood through the example of mining giant Fomento suing Goan blogger Sebastian Rodrigues for $1 billion at the Kolkata High Court, even though Goa would have been a more logical location. Though IIPM lost an earlier case against Careers360 before the Uttaranchal High Court, the offending URLs from that case are included in the latest block order, exemplifying successful forum shifting. The doctrine of ‘res subjudice’ does not permit courts to proceed in a matter which is “directly and substantially” similar to a previous suit between the same parties. Proxies are usually employed to circumvent this procedural doctrine.

Article 19(2) of our Constitution empowers the State to create laws that place eight types (depending on how you count) of reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression. One of these reasonable restrictions is defamation. Tort law on defamation in India has been mostly borrowed from common law principles developed in the UK, which include a series of exceptions where the law cannot be used. In the present context, the exceptions important for the IIPM case include: fair and bona fide comment and matter of public interest. In addition, Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code provides for 10 exceptions to defamation. The exceptions relevant to this case are: “first: imputation of truth which public good requires to be made or published”, “ninth: imputation made in good faith by person for protection of his or other’s interests” and “tenth: caution intended for good of person to whom conveyed or for public good”. The criminal law on defamation in India is based on robust legal principles, but for the sake of public interest it’d be best to do away with such a law as it has far-reaching, chilling effects on free speech.

On interim injunctions in defamation suits, the Delhi High Court set an important precedent protecting free speech in 2011. While applying the English principle — the Bonnard Rule — the court in Tata Sons Pvt Ltd versus Greenpeace International held that a higher standard should be adhered to while granting an interim injunction in a defamation suit, because such an injunction might impinge upon freedom of expression and thus potentially be in violation of the Indian Constitution. This century-old rule states that “until it is clear that an alleged libel is untrue… the importance of leaving free speech unfetter – ed is a strong reason in cases of libel for dealing most cautiously and warily with the granting of interim injunctions…”

In the same case, the Court rejected the argument that since it was published online and thus had wider reach and greater permanence, an injunction should be granted. It observed that “publication is a comprehensive term, embracing all forms and mediums — including the Internet”, thus ruling out special treatment for the Inter net in cases of defamation. That is good news for free speech online in India. Now let’s stick to it.