The Madras High Court on Friday declined to initiate criminal contempt proceedings against actor Suriya for his comments against the judiciary in the light of the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET).
The court said individuals should carefully frame their minds and express themselves without crossing the border of just and fair criticism. Likewise, it is not the job of a constitutional court to use a sledgehammer for avoiding something which can be perceived to be not capable of even being propped up as contempt, much less debated to the level of criminal contempt.
Chief Justice Amreshwar Pratap Sahi and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy made the observations after accepting Advocate-General Vijay Narayan’s opinion that there was no necessity to initiate criminal contempt proceedings against the actor. Justice S.M. Subramaniam of the High Court had written to the Chief Justice on Sunday, taking exception to the actor’s statement against the judiciary.
The actor, involved in educating poor students through his Agaram Foundation, was annoyed by the Supreme Court having refused to exempt students from NEET for medical admissions. He said the court that was functioning virtually “fearing a threat to life” was expecting students to write the examination without any fear of COVID-19.
After giving statistics on the number of cases filed and disposed of by courts in the State during the pandemic, Chief Justice Sahi said: “We find that the utterances by the cine actor may have been absolutely unnecessary or even unwarranted, for being ignorant of the manner in which the entire judiciary of this State has served the interest of its citizens during the pandemic.”
“Any such statement could have been made in a much more sober way, instead of an accusing tone which, though trivial in nature, has raised a storm in a tea cup. A person in public life enjoys a position because of the responsibility with which he conducts himself and not by making other human activities look small for perceptibly no valid reason,” he said.
“We would not say anything further as we find that the NEET examination and the dispute around it was not even a subject matter of the courts in the State of Tamil Nadu,” he added. Following Justice Subramaniam’s letter, six former High Court judges, led by Justice K. Chandru, wrote to the Chief Justice asking him not to initiate contempt proceedings. They said the actor was a philanthropist.
A section of lawyers, too, wrote to the Chief Justice both for and against the initiation of contempt proceedings against him. The Chief Justice, on the administrative side, referred the issue to the Advocate-General, who declined consent to initiate contempt proceedings. However, since no such consent was required to initiate suo motu contempt, the judges went on to pass judicial orders.
“A righteous person should himself be humble enough to acknowledge the contribution of others… Before a scoff or a mocking comment is made, it should also be weighed as to whether it is fair criticism or not,” the first Division Bench said and appreciated a fairly balanced article penned by senior counsel Sriram Panchu and published in the The Hindu on Friday.
Pointing out that judges, court staff and other stakeholders in the State were themselves on trial during the pandemic and yet had done their best, to the capacity of the institution, the Chief Justice said the reliability of sources of information should always be observed when people occupying a public space speak on issues that deserve to be based on ground realities. Otherwise, any statement bereft of foundational facts might be fraught with the danger of spreading prejudices and adding to the ignorance of the public at large, he said.
“Speculations and narratives with embellishments may be a form of advertisement, but it should not be an off the cuff depiction. This unnecessarily results in relentless interrogation on platforms with accusations of over-sensitiveness, even though an opinion expressed genuinely might have a grain of truth in it,” he added.
Chief Justice Sahi went on to state that there could be hair-splitting opinions to find out the difference between an insult, unfair criticism, uninformed opinion, casual drawing room talk, sheer party gossip or constructive dissent, informed criticism and a healthy open debate, as against mere accusations and empty words.
“The freedom of speech to call a spade a spade and to exercise free unrestrained speech are two different dimensions. The right to freedom of speech, that includes fair criticism, is guaranteed under the Constitution, but the same Constitution also protects and insulates judicial governance from insidious and derogatory comments,” he said.
Drawing the curtains on the suo motu contempt of court proceedings, the Chief Justice said the entire judicial system that fosters on the faith of the public at large should be the concern of everyone. He said every citizen needs to learn, even if curriculum does not prescribe it, the need for civility, humility, courteousness and righteous expression.