Lawyers, academics and political leaders on Friday, 14 August, criticised the Supreme Court's decision to hold activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan guilty of criminal contempt of court in its suo motu contempt case, calling it "alarming", a "blow to the rule of law" and anticipating a "bleak future for free speech".
The apex court bench of Justices Arun Mishra, BR Gavai and Krishna Murari on Friday based their order on Bhushan's tweets about current Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and SC itself.
“The scurrilous allegations, which are malicious in nature and have the tendency to scandalise the court are not expected from a person, who is a lawyer of 30 years standing. In our considered view, it cannot be said that the above tweets can be said to be a fair criticism of the functioning of the judiciary, made bona fide in the public interest,” the court said in its judgment.
‘Bleak Future for Free Speech’
Regarding the SC's verdict, senior advocate Indira Jaising told The Quint, "Failure to distinguish between the personal and the constitutional has led to this judgment. I see a bleak future for free speech."
Advocate Sanjay Hegde echoed a similar sentiment regarding the effect on free speech. "A chilling effect on free speech, on the exercise of informed opinion by senior lawyers, may well be a result of this decision. Many of us may have to either not say freely and frankly what we think, or we may only allude to things. That too would not be in the interest of the institution," he said.
"“... To think that a couple of tweets by a lawyer, no matter how well-known, could scandalise the court or lower its authority... the seasoned judges of the Supreme Court cannot afford to be thin-skinned like this.”" - Sanjay Hegde to The Quint‘A Blow to Rule of Law’
Advocate Karuna Nundy, meanwhile, said the threat of imprisonment to Prashant Bhushan for the two tweets critiquing the court is a "blow to the rule of law itself".
The judges have not decided the punishment for the offence, and will hear Bhushan on the matter of sentencing on 20 August, after which they will pronounce their decision on the same. The maximum punishment under the Contempt of Courts Act 1971 is six months’ imprisonment.
However, this Act is not binding on the Supreme Court, which has significant discretion when it comes to contempt against itself, meaning the punishment could include imprisonment and/or a fine and even other consequences as well, such as stripping of professional status.
‘Alarming, Dark Day for Democracy’
On Twitter too, many public figures looked at the apex court's verdict with concern. CPI(M) leader Sitharam Yechury called the SC's verdict "alarming", saying "it brings into the ambit of contempt, bona-fide criticism of the role played by Supreme Court as a Constitutional authority."
Historian Ramachandra Guha called it "a dark day for Indian democracy".
. Read more on Law by The Quint.‘Bleak Future’: Lawyers, Academics Slam SC’s Ruling on BhushanExplained: Why Parts of India Are Seeing Extreme Rainfall & Floods . Read more on Law by The Quint.