State not vicariously liable for hurtful statements of Ministers: SC

New Delhi: A Constitution Bench on January 3 held that the government cannot be held vicariously liable for the hurtful statements made by individual Ministers.

Justice V. Ramasubramanian, speaking for himself, Justices S. Abdul Nazeer, BR Gavai, A.S. Bopanna, held that there was no need to impose “greater restrictions” on the free speech and expression of high public functionaries.

The restrictions under Article 19(2) of the Constitution in free speech was exhaustive.

Justice B.V. Nagarathna, in a separate opinion, highlighted that though there was an inalienable right to free speech, indiscriminate statements hurt ordinary citizens, including women.

The judge held that it was a “no-brainer” that the state cannot be made vicariously liable for the personal comments of a hurtful nature of a Minister. But the State would be vicariously liable for disparaging comments made by a Minister in an official capacity. However, again, the state would not be collectively responsible for stray remarks made by a Minister inconsistent with the stand of the government.

Justice Nagarathna, during the hearing, had said there was an unwritten rule of self-restraint for public functionaries to not “blabber” things which were “very disparaging or insulting” to fellow citizens.

The five-judge Bench led by Justice Nazeer was examining whether guidelines should be framed to stop or even prevent Government Ministers, MPs, MLAs and even political leaders from making unguarded, derogatory and hurtful statements in public.

Justice Nagarathna said there was an inherent constitutional restriction on persons holding responsible offices to follow a certain code of conduct. Such a self-imposed restraint was irrespective of the “reasonable restriction” on free speech.

Attorney General R. Venkataramani, for the Union of India, had said the state should not be held vicariously liable for the hurtful statements made by individual Ministers. The situation would become “unmanageable” if this was done. There would be a flurry of petitions in courts against the state by persons claiming to have been wronged.

He said the issue whether or not to make a separate law or include changes in the Indian Penal Code should be left to the Parliament.

The reference to the Constitution Bench was made two years ago in April 2017. It sprouted from a petition filed by the family members of the Bulandshahr rape case victim against a former Minister’s public statements that the rape case was part of a political conspiracy against the then Akhilesh Yadav government.

The Minister had subsequently apologised unconditionally in the apex court. But the court had decided to examine the question of imposing curbs on the free speech of public functionaries in sensitive matters.