Global Freedom of Expression

Abbas v. India

Closed Contracts Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Audio / Visual Broadcasting
  • Date of Decision
    September 24, 1970
  • Outcome
    Law or Action Upheld
  • Case Number
    (1970) 2 S.C.C. 780
  • Region & Country
    India, Asia and Asia Pacific
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Artistic Expression, Content Regulation / Censorship, Indecency / Obscenity

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Supreme Court of India upheld restrictions on public exhibition under Cinematograph Act, 1952, and rejected a petition that challenged the Act’s powers of censorship. After the petitioner’s film was denied an unrestricted viewing certificate unless he removed a scene deemed unsuitable for children, he petitioned that his right to free expression had been violated by prior censorship the arbitrary exercise of the powers granted in the Act. The Court ruled that prior censorship fell within the reasonable restrictions permitted on free expression, and that the Act was sufficiently clear to avoid arbitrary exercise of the powers therein.


The petitioner was a journalist, playwright, writer and film producer. He produced a short film called A Tale of Four Cities, which depicted the contemporary realities of life in Bombay (present-day Mumbai), Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), Delhi and Madras (present-day Chennai). The film contrasted the luxurious lives of the rich with the squalor of poverty. He sought a U certificate from the Censor Board for unrestricted public viewing.

For granting a U certificate, the Censor Board’s Examining Committee recommended a certificate that restricted public viewing to an audience of adults. This decision was confirmed by the Revising Committee. On appeal, the Central Government recommended a U certificate if a scene set in the red-light district was removed. The scene suggestively portrayed immoral trafficking, prostitution,and economic exploitation by pimps. The scene was considered unsuitable for children.

The petitioner filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court, arguing that his right to freedom of expression was violated because, firstly, prior-censorship itself cannot be tolerated in freedom of speech and expression, and secondly, if any censorship is allowed, it must be on non-arbitrary grounds. The petitioner also asked for directions for a fixed time-limit for a decision of the Censor Board as well as an alternative appellate mechanism to approaching the Central Government; these were granted by the government and so were not discussed by the Supreme Court.

Decision Overview

Chief Justice Hidayatullah delivered the Court’s opinion, on behalf of justices Shelat, Mitter, Vidyialingam and Ray.

The Court did not accept the distinction between prior censorship and censorship in general and considered both to be governed by the standards of reasonable restrictions within Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution. The Constitution recognized that freedom of speech and expression was not an unrestricted right and therefore, reasonable restrictions could be imposed. The absence of the word ‘reasonable’ in the Cinematograph Act was considered inconclusive in this regard. Prior censorship was permitted under the Constitution for public order or tranquility. The Court referred to the guardianship role of the Courts as the legal protector of citizens in preserving public interest.

With respect to the issue of insufficient guidelines in the Act and the arbitrary exercise of powers under the Act, the Court found that the guidelines given under the Act read with Article 19(2) of the Constitution were sufficiently clear. However, it recommended that the guidelines draw a distinction between artistic expression and non-artistic expression in assessing obscenity. This alone was however considered insufficient to strike down the provisions of the Act.

Decision Direction

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Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Contracts Expression

Within the facts of the case, it is reasonable to hold that deletion of scenes may be required in order to get a certificate for unrestricted public viewing as a ‘U certificate’ is not a matter of right.
However, by generally upholding censorship powers under the Cinematograph Act, the Court contracted the right to freedom of expression. This power under the Act is not confined to cases of age-appropriate certification, rather, it applies to demands for all categories of certification. The Cinematograph (Amendment) Act, 1981 (w.e.f. 1983) amended the Act and the Censor Board was renamed the Central Board of Film Certification and the Cinematograph Rules, 1983 were introduced. However, despite the change in nomenclature, the Board continues to exercise censorship powers, which is justified because of the Supreme Court’s acceptance of a wider, more arbitrary censorship provision as constitutional.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

Related International and/or regional laws

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • India, Constitution of India (1949), art. 19.
  • India, Udeshi v. State of Maharashtra, [1965] 1 S.C.R. 65
  • India, Municipal Committee, Amritsar v. State of Rajasthan, A.I.R. 1960 S.C. 1100
  • India, Gopalan v. State of Madras, A.I.R. 1950 SC 27.
  • India, State of Madhya Pradesh v. Baldeo Prasad, [1961] 1 S.C.R. 970

Other national standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230 (1915)
  • U.S., Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925)
  • U.S., Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919)
  • U.S., Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931)
  • U.S., Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942)
  • U.S., Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951)
  • U.S., Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 U.S. 250 (1952)
  • U.S., Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952)
  • U.S., Kingsley International Pictures Corporation v. Regents, 360 U.S. 684 (1959)
  • U.S., Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957)
  • U.K., R v. Hicklin, [1868] L.R. 3 Q.B. 360
  • U.S., Freedman v. Maryland, 380 U.S. 51 (1965)
  • U.S., Teitel Film Corp. v. Cusack, 390 U.S. 139 (1968)
  • U.S., Times Film Corporation v. Chicago, 365 U.S. 43 (1961)
  • U.S., Interstate Circuit Inc. v. Dallas Citation, 390 U.S. 676 (1968)
  • U.S., Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964)
  • U.S., Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629 (1968)
  • U.S., Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557 (1969)
  • U.S., Mishkin v. New York, 383 U.S. 502 (1966)

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

It is a decision of the Supreme Court and binding on all lower Courts, unless overruled by a larger bench, as per the principles of stare decisis.

The decision was cited in:

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