1950: Freedom of the press

Two cases decided by the Supreme Court helped define the rights of the press.

Published : Aug 11, 2022 06:00 IST

The Supreme Court of India.

The Supreme Court of India. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Two cases decided by the Supreme Court in 1950, Romesh Thapar vs State of Madras and Brij Bhushan vs State of Delhi, helped define the rights of the press and also prompted the first amendment to the Constitution.

The Madras government had banned the Cross Roads magazine under the Madras Maintenance of Public Order Act, 1949. Romesh Thapar, the editor, argued that it violated Article 19 of the Constitution (right to free speech and expression).

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The court found: “Unless a law restricting freedom of speech and expression is directed solely against the undermining of the security of the state or the overthrow of it, such law cannot fall within the reservation under Clause (2) of Article 19 [on reasonable restrictions]....”

In Brij Bhushan, the Chief Commissioner of Delhi issued a “pre-censorship order” on Organiser on March 2, 1950. Brij Bhushan, its printer and publisher, petitioned the Supreme Court, which overturned the Chief Commissioner’s order, and ruled that imposing pre-censorship on a journal constituted a restriction on press freedom.

Vallabhbhai Patel in a letter to Nehru on July 3, 1950, wrote: “I drew your attention to the Supreme Court decision in Cross Roads and Organiser cases. That knocks the bottom out of most of our penal laws for the control and regulation of the press. The views which they have expressed... make it doubtful whether we can do anything not only about the speeches of Syama Prasad Mookerjee [incendiary speeches against the backdrop of the Nehru-Liaquat pact] but also those of the more extremist type. ... My own feeling is that very soon we shall have to sit down and consider constitutional amendments.”

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Sure enough, in June 1951, the Constitution (First Amendment) Bill amended Article 19(2) to include three new restrictions on the right to free speech. These were “public order”, “friendly relations with foreign states”, and “incitement to an offence”.

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