Romesh Thappar vs The State Of Madras
Closed Expands Expression
- Mode of Expression
Press / Newspapers
- Date of Decision
May 26, 1950
Law or Action Overturned or Deemed Unconstitutional
- Case Number
(1950) S.C.R. 594
- Region & Country
India, Asia and Asia Pacific
- Judicial Body
Supreme (court of final appeal)
- Type of Law
Freedom of press
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Case Summary and Outcome
The Supreme Court of India agreed with a petition asserting that powers granted under the Madras Maintenance of Public Order Act, 1949 enabled the State to unconstitutionally restrict free expression. Romesh Thappar filed a petition challenging a decision by the State of Madras banning the entry and circulation of his leftist journal, Cross Roads, arguing that the State’s justification for the ban on the basis of “public safety” was too broad. The Court noted that such expansive restrictions were unconstitutional and that only narrow restrictions on freedom of expression were permitted.
The petitioner was the the printer, publisher and editor of a journal in English called Cross Roads printed and published in Bombay. Under Section 9 (1-A) of the the Madras Maintenance of Public Order Act, 1949, the entry and circulation of the journal was banned in the erstwhile State of Madras. In response to the ban, the petitioner filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court, averring that the powers under the Act were an excessive restriction on freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Constitution of India.
In response, it was considered on behalf of the respondent State, that the restriction was for the purpose of public safety and public order. This could be equated with security of the State, which is considered a reasonable restriction on freedom of expression under Article 19(2).
J. Patanjali Sastri (per KANIA C.J., PATANJALI SASTRI, MEHR CHAND
MAHAJAN, MUKHERJEA and DAS JJ.):
Security of the State is a reasonable restriction under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution. However, the words used in the impugned section of the Act are ‘public safety and public order’. The Court considered that the 2 terms have to be read together. The purpose for which restrictions were allowed under the Act for the wider purpose of public order. It drew parallels with the Indian Penal Code and other texts to show that public order has a very wide interpretation- including acts like rash driving. On the other hand, security of the State referred to extreme acts of violence that would threaten to overthrow the State. Therefore, the restriction under the Act was wider than what was Constitutionally permissible as a restriction on freedom of expression.
Further, where an Act may be used within the constitutional limits as well as outside the scope of these limits, it must be considered void. The impugned section was accordingly considered to be void for unconstitutionality, because it gave the State wide powers to restrict freedom of expression. The Court also quashed the order of the Government whereby the newspaper was banned.
J. Fazl, dissenting-
He concluded that the maintenance of peace and tranquility was a part of maintaining security of the State. Therefore, he disagreed with the majority opinion and asserted that the Act imposed reasonable restrictions on freedom of expression and must be upheld as valid.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The Court observed that only narrow restrictions on freedom of expression were envisioned by the Constitution and therefore, any legislation which would allow wider restrictions was to be considered invalid.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Table of Authorities
National standards, law or jurisprudence
- India, Bhushan v. Delhi, (1950) S.C.R. 605
- India, Niharendu Dutt Mazumdar v. Emperor, AIR 1942 FC22 (1942)
- India, Emperor v. Bhalerao, A.I.R. 1947 P.C. 82.
- India, Const., art. 19(1)(a) & (2)
Other national standards, law or jurisprudence
- U.S., Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727 (1878)
- U.S., Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444 (1938)
- U.K., Rex v. Wormwood Scrubbs Prison, L.R.  2 K.B. 805.
- U.S., Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931)
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.
As a Supreme Court decision, this case is binding on all lower Courts. It was decided by a 5-judge bench, which means that a larger Supreme Court bench would need to be constituted in order to review or overrule this case. Therefore, it acts as a binding precedent.
It is noteworthy that the text of the Constitution was altered through the First Amendment after this judgment. Therefore, the standard of Article 19 stands altered. ‘Public order’ is now listed as a reasonable restriction within the text of Article 19(2). However, public safety as discussed in the judgment continues to be beyond the scope of permissible restrictions.
The judgment is still authoritative in so far as it draws a distinction on the basis of whether such restrictions would be viewed as ‘reasonable’. The examples cited in the judgment reveal that only such speech which poses a great threat to the system of governance could be restricted.
This standard was reinforced and expanded by Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, which drew a distinction between advocacy and incitement to hold that mere advocacy of hatred does not permit the State to curtail free speech.
The decision was cited in:
- Life Insurance Corporation of India v. Manubhai
- Sakal Papers (P) Ltd. v. The Union of India
- Shreya Singhal v. Union of India
- Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Private Ltd. v. Union of India
- Bennett Coleman & Co. v. Union of India
- Karnataka v. Associated Management of English Medium Primary & Secondary Schools
- M S M Sharma v. Krishna Sinha
- S. Sudin v. Union of India and others
- Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar
- Chavunduka v. Minister of Home Affairs
- Indibility Creative Pvt Ltd v. Govt of West Bengal
Official Case Documents
Official Case Documents:
Reports, Analysis, and News Articles:
- Arudra Burra. The Cobwebs of Imperial Rule, India Seminar [
- Utkarsh Anand, For Free Speech, SC cites Free Press, Indian Express [Date: Mar 25 2015]
- Gautam Bhatia, Free Speech and Public Order-I, Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy, [Date: August 8, 2013]
- Apar Gupta, Not just false fire alarms: time to re-examine Indian laws that limit speech and expression , MyLaw [Mar 24 2014]
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.