Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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The High Court of Judicature at Madras upheld a petition to strike out a suit that sought a permanent injunction against a bi-weekly magazine restraining it from further publishing a story about the oldest Saivite matha in South India. The initial suit brought by the matha alleged that the article was defamatory, and that it caused huge loss and mental agony. The initial suit sought a permanent injunction against the publishers and editor of the bi-weekly magazine. The bi-weekly magazine subsequently filed a civil review petition, arguing that the initial suit was an abuse of process and was without a cause of action. The publishers and editor argued that the matha should have first sought a declaration that the article was defamatory, before it could seek a permanent injunction. The High Court, taking into account the right to freedom of expression, agreed with the position of the publishers and editor. In its judgment, the Court opined that “no person has a right to seek a blanket injunction against the newspaper with uncertainty.” [para.27] It also suggested that the article itself was not defamatory.
The case concerned the publishers and editor of a bi-weekly political magazine named Nakkeeran. On April 28, 2012, the magazine contained an article about the oldest Saivite matha in South India, the Madurai Adheenam. The Madurai Adheenam had a pontiff, referred to as the 292nd Maha Sannidhanam, who acted as head of the matha since 1980.
The 292nd Maha Sannidhanam filed a suit against the publishers and editor of the Nakkeeran, arguing that the article contained intimidating, demoralizing, defaming, insulting, scandalous, false and fabricated imputations against him. They contended that the publishers and editor had published the articles and pictures without any basis, alleging that the 292nd Maha Sannidhanam is indulging in unlawful, unethical and unspiritual activities. He further claimed that, because of the publication, he had suffered a “huge incalculable loss and mental agony.” [para. 5] He claimed that the editor and the publishers of the magazine violated the statutory rules, norms and the guidelines issued by the Press Council of India in order to increase their circulation. The 292nd Maha Sannidhanam sought a “permanent injunction, restraining the defendants, their men, agents, servants, representatives or anybody acting on their behalf in any manner publishing any material, articles, photographs, in their magazines, websites whatsoever on future either by direct or indirect reference against the plaintiff or Madurai Aadheenam, either personally or individually or in the capacity as the Head of the Aadheenam in their magazine Nakeeran a bi-weekly.” [para. 5]
The publishers and editor brought a revision petition to strike out the abovementioned suit. They argued that the claim of the 292nd Maha Sannidhanam was an abuse of process and was without a cause of action. They relied on their right to freedom of expression and of the press, as well as the principle of Indian law that victims of defamatory statements must first seek declaratory relief before they can seek a permanent injunction from the court. They argued further that the “bare injunction blanket prayer is violative of the freedom of press enshrined in Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India.” [para. 10] They stated that no person is entitled to restrict the journalistic right of the magazine against any future publication. Furthermore, without a petition seeking declaratory relief, the civil suit for defamation was not maintainable. For instance, the suit was brought without indicating the individuals before whom the reputation of the Madurai Aadheenam had been harmed.
The Madurai Aadheenam argued that the publishers and editors could not bring the revision petition before the court.
Justice M.V. Muralidaran of the High Court of Judicature at Madras (Court) delivered the judgment upholding the civil revision petition.
The Court began by noting that the relevant article was actually the reproduction of statements made by two other individuals, but they were not sued as defendants and no complaint was made against them. The Court went on to find that the article “cannot be stated as tarnishing the image of … Madurai Aadheenam.” [para. 23]
The Court considered the injunctive relief sought in this case and noted that if it were to grant such a relief, without a declaration that the article was defamatory, it would be involved in the pre-determination and pre-conception of the issue. The Court concluded that the prayer sought for in the plaint “must be constructed for the relief of declaration that such article is defamatory as per law” before an injunction is sought. [para.24]
It then considered the right to freedom of expression, and opined that the publishers and editor “are having right to freedom of press as enshrined in Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India … [T]he plaintiff cannot seek for a relief of blanket injunction by making omnibus prayer. Therefore, the above suit filed by the respondent herein is a clear case of abuse of process of law and the same cannot be allowed to stand.” [para.25] In the concluding paragraphs of its judgment, the Court reasoned that “no person has a right to seek a blanket injunction against the newspaper with uncertainty.” [para.27] In this case, the suit for permanent injunction was found to be liable to be struck down.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This judgement expands expression as it upholds the right to freedom of the press under the Indian Constitution. It also has a positive impact on freedom of expression as it limits the circumstances under which prior-restraint on speech can be obtained in defamation cases. For instance, the judgment indicates that Indian courts will not order a permanent injunction restraining a newspaper from publishing a story where there has been no full, prior determination as to whether the story was defamatory. This is an important safeguard against the courts imposing injunctions that are in violation of the right to freedom of expression.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
This decision which is given by the High Court of Madras is binding on all lower courts. Moreover, it holds as a persuasive value to the Supreme Court of India.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.