N Ram & Ors. v Union of India

Judges: Krishna Murari, BR Gavai, Arun Mishra

W.P.(C) No. 791/2020


N Ram, Prashant Bhushan, and Arun Shourie filed a petition challenging the constitutional validity of s.2(c)(i) of the Contempt of Courts Act 1971, which describes contempt of court as any matter which ‘scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court.

On 22 July 2020, the Supreme Court issued Prashant Bhushan with a notice pertaining to a contempt petition filed against him by a 3rd party, which was subsequently converted into a Suo moto petition. The contempt notice was supported two tweets authored by Mr. Bhushan: the first regarding the CJI riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and another one second regarding Mr. Bhushan’s assessment of the role of the Court within the ‘destruction of democracy’. Mr. Bhushan then filed a preliminary response to the present notice within the sort of a Reply Affidavit, which was heard by the Court on 5 August 2020. On 6 August, Mr. Bhushan submitted to the Court an application under s.17(5) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, which asked that he be allowed to submit more evidence if the Court intended to take the matter to any extent further.

Mr. Bhushan is a public interest lawyer. On the 31st of July 2020, Mr. Bhushan together with Mr. N Ram and Mr. Arun Shourie filed a petition before the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of s.2(c)(i) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. Mr. Ram is a journalist and a former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, while Mr. Shourie is an economist, journalist, and a former Union Minister, also as a Padma Bhushan recipient.

The three petitioners have all been involved in contempt cases in the past, and submit that they're ‘concerned’ about the ‘chilling effect’ of the relevant subsection on the liberty of speech as enshrined under Article 19(1) a) of the Constitution. They also make submissions as to the harmful effect this has on the general public and political lifetime of citizens, also because the importance of criticism during a functioning democracy. Their claim is predicated on several points, most importantly the vague and loose wording of the relevant subsection—'scandalising or lowering the authority of the court'—which they argue is vulnerable to misuse, and can't and will not be included under contempt of court as per Article 19(2).

The case was earlier listed before a bench of Justices Chandrachud and Joseph on 10 August 2020 but thereafter was deleted from the cause list. The Supreme Court Registry circulated a note stating that since another bench was hearing similar matters, the case challenging the constitutionality of contempt of court was listed by mistake by the Registry before Justice Chandrachud's bench. The case came up on 13 August 2020 before a three-judge bench consisting of Justices Mishra, Gavai and Murari.

The Court dismissed the writ petition as 'withdrawn' and granted the petitioners' request for permission to file it before a High court at a later stage.