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SC speaks sense: Gov't shouldn't use defamation to fight criticism

The Supreme Court said today defamation laws cannot be used by the government to stifle criticism.

In a series of observation made in hearing one of several defamation cases filed by the Tamil Nadu government of J Jayalalithaa against her critics, the apex court said such action amounts to curbing of free speech.

The bench of Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Rohinton Nariman said such defamation cases against the lawmakers and those who criticise government policies have a “chilling effect”.

“It amounts to curbing of free speech. There has to be tolerance for criticism. The defamation law cannot be used as a political counter weapon,” the bench said.

“For any criticism like corruption in the government or that one is not fit to run the government, you can’t slap defamation cases,” the bench observed.

The apex court bench also sought a list of defamation cases filed by the law officers of the Jayalalithaa government.

Referring to its judgement upholding the defamation law under the Indian Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure, the bench said it was its duty to protect the people against whom defamation cases were filed if it found that there was “continuous effort and deliberate design” to use the public prosecutors to institute cases.

The apex court by its 13 May, 2016, judgement had rejected the challenge to the constitutional validity of penal provisions for criminal defamation.

The court had then said “it is extremely difficult to subscribe to the view that criminal defamation has a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression”.

The bench stayed the non-bailable warrants issued against DMDK leader Captain Vijaykanth and his wife Premalatha that were issued by a trial court at Tirupur in Tamil Nadu.

Vijaykanth and his wife had attracted the defamation case for criticising the Tamil Nadu government policy and describing it as corrupt.

The Tirupur court had issued non-bailable warrants against the couple following their non-appearance before it in the defamation case filed in February.

Vijaykanth is facing 14 defamation cases for criticising the working of the state government.

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