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Indian Express Newspapers vs. Union of India (1985): Upholding the Freedom of the Press Against Fiscal Restraints

The case of Indian Express Newspapers vs. Union of India stands out as a beacon in the defense of the freedom of the press in India. It primarily dealt with the issue of fiscal measures imposed on newspapers and their implications on the freedom of speech and expression.

Background of the Case: The government imposed a customs duty on newsprint, which is an essential input for newspaper printing. Newspapers, including Indian Express, challenged this fiscal measure on the ground that it amounted to a restriction on the freedom of the press, which is a part of the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution.

Key Aspects of the Judgment:

  1. Fiscal Measures as Indirect Restrictions: The Supreme Court recognized that fiscal measures, like the imposition of customs duty, could serve as indirect tools to throttle the freedom of speech and expression. Just because a restriction is veiled under economic terminology does not mean it won’t have constitutional implications.
  2. Economic Impact on Free Speech: The Court highlighted that the economic viability of a newspaper is essential for its freedom. If fiscal measures make the publication economically unviable, it directly impacts the freedom of speech. Thus, even economic and fiscal regulations could be challenged if they disproportionately affect the freedom of the press.
  3. Balancing Revenue Needs and Fundamental Rights: While the Court upheld the newspapers’ contention, it did recognize the State’s power to levy duties and collect revenue. However, it emphasized that these fiscal measures must be reasonable and should not disproportionately burden the freedom of speech.

Critical Analysis:

  • Broader Interpretation of Free Speech: This judgment stands as a testament to the Supreme Court’s broader interpretation of the freedom of speech and expression. Recognizing fiscal measures as potential restrictions further amplified the scope of Article 19(1)(a).
  • Highlighting the Economic Aspect: The judgment underscored the importance of economic factors in the realm of fundamental rights. A newspaper’s freedom isn’t just about editorial content; its economic health directly influences its ability to express and disseminate views.
  • Limitations on State Power: By emphasizing the proportionality of fiscal measures, the Court set a precedent that the State’s power to levy taxes and duties is not unbridled and can be challenged if it infringes on fundamental rights.

Conclusion: The Indian Express Newspapers vs. Union of India case reflects the delicate balance between a State’s fiscal policies and the cherished freedom of the press. By siding with the press, the Supreme Court underscored the primacy of constitutional freedoms over economic measures. The judgment serves as a reminder that the freedom of speech and expression, especially of the press, is sacrosanct in a democracy and must be shielded from both overt and covert infringements.

Shivendra Pratap Singh

Advocate

High Court Lucknow

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