Social media influencers must be ‘cautious’, says Bombay High Court

Mumbai: While it is necessary to preserve the freedom of speech and expression, it is equally necessary to have some restrictions on it for the maintenance of social order in democracy, observed the Bombay High Court on Wednesday.

The HC also said that social media influencers should exercise their right to free speech and expression ‘cautiously’ in order to ensure that their message does not harm anyone’s reputation.

The observations were made by a bench of Justice Shahrukh Kathawalla while restraining a youtuber from making any video on the quality of Parachute oil.

The bench was seized with a lawsuit filed by Parachute oil manufacturers taking exception to the youtube video of the account - ‘Bearded Chhokra’, operated by Abhijeet Bhansali.

Bhansali was dragged to the court after he released a video online, wherein he had done a ‘quality test’ of the Parachute oil and concluded that the said oil was not the purest one.

Having heard the parties, Justice Kathawalla said, “In my view, social media influencers are aware of the influence they wield over the audience and their statements have a magnified and profound impact.”

“Thus, it is apparent, that an influencer, such as Bhansali, wields the power to influence the public mind. I do not believe that such influencers can deliver statements with the same impunity available to an ordinary person.

Such person bears a higher burden to ensure there is a degree of truthfulness in his statements. They do have a responsibility to ensure what they are publishing is not harmful or offensive,” Justice Kathawalla held.

The bench said that such influencers, have a responsibility to ensure that they do not mislead the public and that they disseminate correct information.

The bench also noted that Bhansali has been creating and publishing numerous videos and that was the only source of livelihood for him as he his content created a handsome revenue.

“For his monetary gains, Bhansali is attacking the manufacturer’s product to attract more viewers. Even though he is an individual, Bhansali cannot assert a fundamental right to abuse the product by making false or malicious allegations to gain monetary benefits,” Justice Kathawalla ruled.

The court further held the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression is not an unfettered right.

“While it is absolutely necessary to maintain and preserve the freedom of speech and expression, it is equally necessary to have some restrictions on this freedom for the maintenance of social order in democracy.

Since no freedom can be absolutely unlimited, the Constitution of India provides the grounds on which reasonable restrictions on this freedom can be imposed,” Justice Kathawalla held.

“It is not in dispute that Bhansali’s content amounts to commercial speech, which is a part of the fundamental right of free speech and expression, however, it cannot be that this fundamental right can be abused by any individual by maligning or disparaging the product of others as is done in the present case,” the court ruled.