Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The Supreme Court stated that criminal defamation laws should not be used to quell political dissent. The Court ordered Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to furnish a full list of all criminal defamation proceedings filed and to answer whether she had used her influence to instigate criminal defamation proceedings against political opponents.
Columbia Global Freedom of Expression could not identify official legal and government records on the case and information on the case was derived from secondary sources. Global FoE notes that media outlets may not provide complete information about this case. Additional information regarding legal matters will be updated as an official source becomes available.
Vijayakanth, an opposition politician, was named in a police complaint for defamation after he alleged in a speech that the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayaraman Jayalalithaa, heads a corrupt government. There are reportedly 14 defamation cases against him for his comments criticizing the government, including his allegation that the floods that wrecked Chennai in December 2015 had been artificially caused.
Non-bailable warrants had been issued against Vijayakanth and his wife Premlata by a Trial Court after they failed to appear for a hearing. Vijayakanth petitioned the Supreme Court of India to stay some of these proceedings. The Supreme Court stayed the warrants; the case is ongoing.
The Order was passed by a Bench comprising of Justice Dipak Misra and Justice R.F. Nariman. Justice Misra is the author of the decision in Subramanian Swamy v Union of India & Ors [W.P. (Crl.) No. 184 of 2014 and other petitions], upholding the constitutional validity of the criminal defamation provisions in the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
Justice Misra observed that a political rival in a democracy, like any other common man, has the right to criticize the government of the day. He further stated that democracy is predicated fundamentally on the ideas of criticism, dissent, and tolerance, noting that the will, desire, aspirations and sometimes the desperation of the people are expressed through such criticism. Defamation proceedings should not be instituted in response to political criticism, including allegations of corruption in the government or that a politician is unfit to run the government.
The Court reportedly stated that, “you can’t use defamation cases to throttle democracy. This is not done. You are a public figure and you have to face criticism … A government cannot be seen to use state machinery to file criminal defamation cases against political opponents. Cases for criticizing the government or bureaucrats create a chilling effect … Even though we upheld the defamation law, if we find there is a continuous effort and deliberate design to engage government law officers to file cases, it is the duty of the court to protect them”.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This Order clarifies that criminal defamation laws should not be used to silence political criticism.
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.
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