New Delhi: Not dealing firmly with malicious attacks against the judiciary “may affect the national honour and prestige in the comity of nations”, the Supreme Court said Friday as it held advocate Prashant Bhushan guilty of criminal contempt for his tweets.
A bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra, B.R. Gavai and Krishna Murari said Bhushan’s tweets were based on “distorted facts”, adding that his allegations were “undoubtedly false, malicious and scandalous”.
The Supreme Court had last month initiated contempt proceedings against Bhushan over a couple of tweets where he sought to raise questions about the conduct of Chief Justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde, and some of his predecessors.
Holding him guilty of contempt Friday, the court cited Bhushan’s three-decade career as a lawyer and the medium used — Twitter, which took his remarks instantly “to millions” — to justify its verdict.
The court noted that Bhushan is a veteran lawyer with 30 years’ experience in the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court, and said such tweets “are not expected” from a lawyer of his standing.
Bhushan, the bench said, is “expected to act as a responsible officer of the court”. “The alleged contemnor being part of the institution of administration of justice, instead of protecting the majesty of law, has indulged into an act, which tends to bring disrepute to the institution of administration of justice,” it added.
It also considered the fact that the remarks were made through a tweet. “The publication by tweet reaches millions of people and as such, such a huge extent of publication would also be one of the factors that requires to be taken into consideration while considering the question of good faith.”
‘False, malicious, scandalous’
The first tweet in question referred to a viral photograph from late June that showed CJI S.A. Bobde astride a parked motorcycle.
The court said the first part of the tweet, about CJI Bobde riding a bike “without a mask or a helmet… could be said to be a criticism made against the CJI as an individual and not against the CJI as CJI”.
The court, however, highlighted the second part of the tweet, where Bhushan noted that the photo came “at a time when he keeps the SC in lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental rights to access justice”.
This, the court said, was a criticism of the CJI in his capacity as the Chief Justice of India.
The court then pointed out that, during the lockdown, it conducted a total of 879 sittings and heard over 12,700 matters. The claim that the CJI kept the Supreme Court in “lockdown mode” is thus “patently false”, it added.
It also pointed out that Bhushan himself had appeared for several matters through video conferencing.
“In this premise, making such wild allegations thereby giving an impression, that the CJI is enjoying riding an expensive bike, while he keeps the SC in lockdown mode and thereby denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice, is undoubtedly false, malicious and scandalous,” it said.
Tweet ‘undermines dignity and authority’ of court
The second tweet sought to allege that the Supreme Court and the “last four chief justices” had played a “substantial role” in “destroying” democracy in India.
As it dwelt on the tweet, the court said it was in “three distinct parts”. “According to him (Bhushan), the first part of the tweet contains his considered opinion, that democracy has been substantially destroyed in India during the last six years. The second part is his opinion that the Supreme Court has played a substantial role in allowing the destruction of democracy, and the third part is his opinion regarding the role of the last four Chief Justices in particular in allowing it.”
According to the court, the tweet criticised the “institution of the Supreme Court and the institution of the Chief Justice of India”.
“In our considered view, the said tweet undermines the dignity and authority of the institution of the Supreme Court of India and the CJI and directly affronts the majesty of law,” it said.
The court had also initiated contempt proceedings against Twitter, but the social media giant said in its submission that it is merely an intermediary, and not the author or originator of the tweets.
Twitter also told the court that it had blocked access to the two tweets and disabled them after the initiation of contempt proceedings.
Taking note of this, the bench discharged Twitter, observing, “It has also showed bona fides immediately after the cognisance was taken by this court as it has suspended both the tweets. We, therefore, discharge the notice issued to the alleged contemnor No.2 (Twitter Inc).”
‘Free speech now needs to be restricted’
Commenting on the sort of precedent this judgment sets, senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan told ThePrint, “The judgment suggests that free speech, which has been exercised thus far, needs to be bound and restricted. And one has to be very careful about mentioning judges’ names or their activities.
“This particular judgment suggests that the judge and the court are the same thing. And, therefore, a statement about one person, whether factual or not, is treated as contempt of court,” he added.
Senior advocate K.T.S. Tulsi said the Supreme Court “should not be afraid of criticism”.
“Criticism is twice blessed. It blesses the one who criticises and also blesses the one who is criticised. That’s the only way institutions can grow,” he added.
“The Supreme Court is a public institution and each of them (the judges) are open to criticism… So these kinds of things should not become the subject matter of contempt,” he added.