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Brij Bhushan and Another vs. The State of Delhi (1950): A Landmark for Press Freedom

The Brij Bhushan vs. The State of Delhi case is a landmark judgment in the domain of free speech and freedom of the press in India. Let’s delve into the intricacies of this case and its long-standing implications for Indian democracy.

Background of the Case: The Chief Commissioner of Delhi, using the powers vested upon him by Section 7(1)(c) of the East Punjab Public Safety Act, 1949, directed the organizers of an English weekly named “Organiser” to submit for scrutiny, before publication, all communal matter and news and views about Pakistan, including photographs and cartoons. This was done under the pretext of maintaining public order and ensuring the safety of the public. Brij Bhushan, the proprietor, and Ramesh Thapar, the editor of “Organiser,” challenged this order in the Supreme Court.

Key Aspects of the Judgment:

  1. Pre-censorship vs. Freedom of Speech: The Supreme Court observed that the order of pre-censorship was a restriction on the liberty of the press. Such an imposition of pre-censorship, the Court stated, was a direct infringement of the right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
  2. Public Safety and Restrictions: The Court considered the restrictions that can be imposed in the interest of public safety and noted that the term “public safety” as employed in the East Punjab Public Safety Act was too vague. It was not equivalent to the security of the state or public order, which are grounds under which reasonable restrictions can be placed on free speech as per Article 19(2).
  3. Striking Down the Act: The Court declared Section 7(1)(c) of the East Punjab Public Safety Act, 1949, as unconstitutional since it exceeded the reasonable restrictions criterion set by Article 19(2) of the Constitution.

Critical Analysis:

  • Upholding Democratic Principles: This judgment, alongside other early decisions like Romesh Thappar vs. State of Madras, showcases the Supreme Court’s intent to protect and uphold the democratic principles that form the bedrock of the Constitution. In ensuring the freedom of the press, the Court played a vital role in establishing a free and vibrant democracy.
  • Broad vs. Narrow Interpretation: The judgment leaned towards a narrow interpretation of the permissible restrictions under Article 19(2), ensuring that the exceptions did not swallow up the rule itself.
  • A Stand Against Vague Laws: By pointing out the vagueness in the term “public safety,” the Court set an essential precedent. Laws, especially those that potentially infringe upon fundamental rights, need to be clear, precise, and not open to broad and subjective interpretation.

Conclusion: The Brij Bhushan case, decided within months of the Constitution coming into effect, offered an early view of the Supreme Court’s stance on fundamental rights. By favoring freedom of speech and the press over ambiguous security concerns, the Court sent out a clear message: the rights enshrined in the Constitution are not mere textual promises but are to be upheld and protected zealously.

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