The court also agreed to hear Rahul’s plea challenging the constitutional validity of criminal defamation law under Section 499 and 500 of Indian Penal Code which makes defamation an offence punishable with up to two-year jail term.
Rahul submitted that criminal defamation law is a colonial legacy and it has no place in a democratic country.
He said in his petition that the law violates people’s fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression and the law must be done away with.
A bench of justices Dipak Misra and PC Pant clubbed Rahul’s petition with the petition filed by Arvind Kejriwal and Subramanium Swamy and posted the case for final hearing on July 8.
“Criminal defamation laws are inherently harsh and have a disproportionate chilling effect on free expression. Individuals face the constant threat of being arrested, held in pre-trial detention, subjected to expensive criminal trials, and then in the event of conviction, saddled with a criminal record, fines and imprisonment, and the social stigma associated with this,” Rahul said in his petition.
“Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC violate the right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. These provisions results in curbs on the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression beyond the limits of restrictions under Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India,” the Congress vice-president said.
He said criminal defamation laws violated international norms on freedom of speech and people felt threatened by the penal provision.
“The internet could serve as a great medium for public discourse, but bloggers and citizen journalists could feel threatened by the criminal provisions related to defamation and this could cause a chilling effect,” the Congress leader said.
“Whatever be the position prior to the independence of India, Sections 499 and 500 of IPC have ceased to be reasonable restrictions after the Constitution came into force guaranteeing the right to equality in Article 14, the right to freedom of speech and expression in Article 19 (1) (a) and the right to personal liberty in Article 21 which constitute an integral part of the basic structure of the Constitution,” he said.
Rahul said offences like murder and theft affected society and therefore freedom could be curtailed but the act of defamation posed no discernible threat to society at large.
“Its scope of impact is primarily restricted to the alleged victim and persons close to him who always have the option of responding to the defamatory allegations and setting the record straight. Thus, treating acts of defamation in a similar manner as grave offences against the public is patently arbitrary,” Rahul said.
An RSS activist Rajesh Kunte had alleged that the Congress leader had accused the saffron outfit of killing Mahatma Gandhi at a rally during last year’s Lok Sabha polls.
According to the RSS activist, the Congress vice-president had told an election rally at Sonale on March 6 that “RSS people killed Gandhiji”.
He further accused Rahul of trying to tarnish the reputation of the Sangh through his speech.