Freedom of speech not absolute: SC

The Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to grant interim protection from arrest to makers of web series ‘Tandav’, who are seeking quashing of FIRs against them for hurting religious sentiments, while observing that “freedom of speech and expression is not absolute”.

A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, R Subhash Reddy and M R Shah turned down the plea made by senior advocates Fali S Nariman, Mukul Rohatgi and Siddharth Luthra to stay the FIRs, but said the petitioners could approach other fora, including the trial court, for relief.

The court said a person cannot claim “an absolute right to freedom of speech and expression” and it is subject to restrictions.

The petitioners — director Ali Abbas Zafar, Amazon Prime India head Aparna Purohit, producer Himanshu Mehra and Actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub — contended that FIRs had been filed in different states and they would be harassed by their police for the same alleged offence.

Nariman said FIRs were being filed even after the alleged objectionable part had been removed and apology tendered. He said nothing remained in the case and no coercive action should be taken against the makers and cast of the web series. Rohatgi also cited that the apex court had granted similar relief in cases involving M F Hussain and Arnab Goswami.

He said the series is a political satire and if people become so sensitive that they cannot take satire in good spirit, there would be no freedom of speech in the country.

The bench was not convinced with the submission and refused to grant the protection. However, it agreed to examine whether FIRs could be clubbed together and issued notice to Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Bihar and Delhi where FIRs had been lodged against them.

“We issue notice in the writ petition limited to transfer and clubbing of the FIRs with first FIR. Let notice be issued, returnable within four weeks. We make it clear that the issue of notice in this petition shall not preclude the petitioners to approach the concerned courts for anticipatory bail/bail as per law,” the bench said. The bench has sought response from states such as UP, MP, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Bihar and Delhi on the pleas.

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