New Delhi: The Delhi High Court Monday vacated its 2017 gag order restricting publication of comments and articles on sexual harassment allegations against venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy.
The court was hearing a defamation case filed by Murthy against his accusers and the publications that published the story.
Justice Jayant Nath observed, “In my opinion, it would not be reasonable in the facts and circumstances to fetter the narration of alleged facts and comments of defendants No. 1, 2, 15 and 16 and other defendants. The said defendants have a right to exercise their right of freedom of speech.”
The court asserted that prima facie, it cannot be said that the defendants have no case against Murthy or were misusing their freedom of speech to tarnish or defame him.
“Further, it cannot be said that the said defendants are behaving in a malicious or mala fide manner,” it said.
It also rejected the contention that the accusers were “disgruntled” as Murthy had rejected their business proposals, calling it a “bald plea”.
In 2017, publications like SheThePeople, FactorDaily and YourStory had published reports highlighting sexual harassment allegations against Murthy.
Author Rashmi Bansal, entrepreneur Pooja Chauhan, a start-up founder, and an HR Director at the Bangalore unit of a multinational company, Anamika Chadha, had accused him of harassment.
While Chauhan and the start-up founder had posted screenshots of conversations with Murthy, Bansal had alleged that Murthy had touched her inappropriately at a cafe in Mumbai during a business meeting in 2004. Chadha had also made similar allegations against him, saying that he had behaved with her inappropriately during a meeting in 2003, according to the FactorDaily article.
Murthy had, in turn, filed a defamation case against them and 16 other defendants, including the three publications, in 2017, demanding Rs 2.5 crore as compensation for their alleged defamatory posts and comments.
Murthy had sought an injunction against journalists Dipti Nair and Pankaj Mishra, who had written articles titled ‘Sexual Harassment – Underbelly of the Indian Startup ecosystem exposed’ in YourStory and ‘Mahesh Murthy in new sexual misconduct charges; Seedfund says had heard other rumours’ in FactorDaily.
The matter had first come up in the high court in March 2017 and then, on 18 April 2017, the court restrained the defendants from publishing any article or commenting on the allegations made through the posts.
No reason to conclude allegation were mala fide
However, in the recent order, Justice Nath referred to precedents and noted that the “reputation of a person cannot be allowed to be sullied for the other’s right of free speech”.
The court asserted that a balance needs to be struck between the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) and the reputation of an individual, which is considered a part of Article 21.
It then vacated the gag order, observing, “The plaintiff admits that defendants No. 15 and 16 (Bansal and Chadha) are successful individuals. There is no explanation given why defendants No. 15 and 16 have chosen to make the necessary publications. There appears to be no reason to conclude that the said defendants have acted in a mala fide manner.”