New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday held that freedom of speech and expression is paramount in a democracy and directed the West Bengal government to pay a compensation of Rs 20 lakhs to the producer and director of a Bengali film ‘Bhobishyoter Bhoot’, a satire on ghosts, for preventing its public exhibition in theatres.
Bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta agreed with the submission of the producer Indibility Creative Pvt Ltd that the state government and the Kolkata police have caused an "utterly unlawful obstruction of the public exhibition of their Bengali feature film".
Their apprehension that the film was taken off from the theatres within a day of its release on February 15 is not unfounded.
The bench pointed out that letter from the police to the producer specifically mentions that they were directed by the authorities to discontinue the screening in the ‘interest of the guests’.
"We have no manner of doubt that this was a clear abuse of public power. The police are entrusted with enforcing law. In the present case, the West Bengal police have over-reached their statutory powers and have become instruments in a concerted attempt to silence speech, suborn views critical of prevailing cultures and threaten law abiding citizens into submission", it said.
The court said "But what do citizens who have a legitimate right to exhibit a film confront when they are told that a film, which is duly certified and slated for release, is unceremoniously pulled off the exhibiting theatres without the authority of law? Such attempts are insidious and pose a grave danger to personal liberty and to free speech and expression. They are insidious because the authority of law does not back them."
The bench said "They pose grave dangers to free speech because the citizen is left in the lurch without being informed of the causes or the basis of the action. This has the immediate effect of silencing speech and the expression of opinion. Contemporary events reveal that there is a growing intolerance: intolerance, which is unaccepting of the rights of others in society to freely espouse their views and to portray them in print, in the theatre or in the celluloid media."
Writing the judgment Justice Chandrachud said, "Freedoms, which are guaranteed by Article 19, are universal. Article 19(1) stipulates that all citizens shall have the freedoms, which it recognises. Political freedoms impose a restraining influence on the state by carving out an area in which the state shall not interfere.
Hence, these freedoms are perceived to impose obligations of restraint on the state. But, apart from imposing ‘negative’ restraints on the state these freedoms impose a positive mandate as well. The police are not in a free society the self-appointed guardians of public morality, the Bench held and asked the State to pay Rs 1 lakh as costs to the producer besides Rs 20 lakh compensation."