SC quashes FIR against Mukhim, says free speech can't be stifled by criminal cases

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New Delhi, Mar 25 (PTI) 'Free speech of the citizens of this country cannot be stifled by implicating them in criminal cases', the Supreme Court said on Thursday and quashed the FIR lodged against veteran journalist Patricia Mukhim for allegedly creating communal disharmony through her Facebook post.

A bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat said the fervent plea made by Mukhim in her social media post for protection of non-tribals living in Meghalaya and for their equality cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be categorized as hate speech.

The analysis of Facebook post written by Mukhim shows that no case of hate speech is made out, it apex court said.

“Disapprobation of governmental inaction cannot be branded as an attempt to promote hatred between different communities. Free speech of the citizens of this country cannot be stifled by implicating them in criminal cases, unless such speech has the tendency to affect public order,” the bench said.

It said India is a plural and multicultural society and the promise of liberty, enunciated in the Preamble, manifests itself in various provisions which outline each citizen’s rights; including right to free speech, to travel freely and settle throughout the length and breadth of India.

Justice Rao, who wrote the verdict on behalf of the bench said: 'At times, when in the legitimate exercise of such a right, individuals travel, settle down or carry on a vocation in a place where they find conditions conducive, there may be resentments, especially if such citizens prosper, leading to hostility or possibly violence.

'In such instances, if the victims voice their discontent, and speak out, especially if the state authorities turn a blind eye, or drag their feet, such voicing of discontent is really a cry for anguish, for justice denied - or delayed. This is exactly what appears to have happened in this case.' The top court said that a close scrutiny of the Facebook post would indicate that the agony of Mukhim was directed against the apathy shown by the Chief Minister of Meghalaya, the Director General of Police and the Dorbar Shnong of the area in not taking any action against the culprits who attacked the non-tribals youngsters.

“For the aforementioned reasons, the appeal is allowed and the judgment of the High Court is set aside. FIR...dated July 6, 2020 registered at Police Station Laban is quashed”, the bench said.

Dealing with the post written by Mukhim, it said, 'the Appellant referred to the attacks on non-tribals in 1979. At the most, the Facebook post can be understood to highlight the discrimination against non-tribals in the State of Meghalaya'.

Mukhim made it clear in her post that criminal elements have no community and immediate action has to be taken against persons who indulged in the brutal attack on non-tribal youngsters playing basketball and the Facebook post read in its entirety pleads for equality of non-tribals in the Meghalaya, the top court said.

“In our understanding, there was no intention on the part of the Appellant to promote class/community hatred. As there is no attempt made by the Appellant to incite people belonging to a community to indulge in any violence, the basic ingredients of the offence under Sections 153 A and 505 (1) (c) have not been made out,” it said.

It added that allegations made in the FIR or the complaint, even if they are taken on their face value and accepted in their entirety do not prima facie constitute any offence or make out a case against the accused.

On November 10 last year, a single judge bench of the Meghalaya High Court had refused to quash the FIR filed by the Lawsohtun Dorbar Shnong (a traditional institution). Mukhim had hit out at the Lawsohtun village “dorbar” (council) on Facebook for failing to identify the “murderous elements” after five boys were attacked at a basketball court in July this year.

Eleven people were picked up and two were arrested in the case.

The police complaint was filed against Mukhim by the village council on July 6 last year for her post on the social media, alleging that her statement incited communal tension and might instigate communal conflict.

She was subsequently booked under section 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, residence, language etc) and other provisions of the Indian Penal Code. PTI MNL SA