R. Rajagopal & Ors vs. State of Tamil Nadu & Ors

BENCH: JEEVAN REDDY, B.P.SEN, S.C. (J)

INTRODUCTION

R. Rajagopal vs. State of Tamil Nadu is a seminal case on free speech and expression, as well as the right to privacy. This case concerned the press's freedom of expression in relation to the right to privacy. freedom of expression is a fundamental right under Article 19(a) and the right to privacy under Article 21 of the constitution.


FACTS OF THE CASE

The editor, associate editor, printer, and publisher of the Tamil journal Nakkheeran are among the petitioners. The State of Tamil Nadu, the Inspector General of Prisons, and the Superintendent of Prisons are among the respondents. The petitioners wanted the respondents to stop intervening with the publication of Auto Shanker, a prisoner's autobiography, in Nakkheeran. Shanker was found guilty of six murders and given the death penalty.

The state assumed that the book contained numerous instances or words that could impair the state's reputation as the magazine allegedly exposed Shankar’s connections with several IAS, IPS, and other officials and hence barred the book from being published. The petitioners received a letter from the Inspector-General of Prisons, saying that the autobiography is fictitious and that publishing such a book would be against prison rules. The Inspector-General of Prisons has warned to pursue immediate action if the book is published since it is believed to be derogatory to prison workers and administrators.


The Petitioners were concerned that the officials would obstruct the publishing, so they filed a writ petition before the Madras High Court to protect their right to publish the autobiography under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. The petition was dismissed by the Single Judge due to the maintainability of the suit. Thus, the Petitioners went to the apex court to defend their right to publication.


ISSUES RAISED

1. Whether the State or public officials could bring a defamation action against the press and impose prior restrictions to avoid the publication of defamatory material on the press;

2. Whether prison officials could act in the interests of an inmate and inhibit the publication of his life story in order to safeguard his rights,

3. Whether a book can be published without the authorisation of the person concerned or authority.



JUDGEMENT OF THE SUPREME COURT

The Court noted cases from the United States and the United Kingdom in which privacy was a topic of discussion. The Court looked at how these worldwide principles applied to the right to privacy and came up with a set of broad guidelines.

1. Whether the State or public officials could bring a defamation action against the press and impose prior restrictions to avoid the publication of defamatory material on the press

The Supreme Court held that the state cannot halt the publication because there are no regulations prohibiting the publication of a book only because it may be defamatory. The defendants, on the other hand, can claim after the book has been published if the book is found to be defamatory.


In New York Times v. the United States, also known as the Pentagon Papers case, the Supreme Court stated that any framework of prior constraints of (freedom of) expression arrives at this Court carries a strong presumption against its constitutionality and that the administration carries a heavy burden of proving rationalisation for the intrusion of such a restraint. If there is any remedy for public officials/public personalities, it will only be after the publication.

2. Whether prison officials could act in the interests of an inmate and inhibit the publication of his life story in order to safeguard his rights.

According to the court, it is not mentioned in the counter-affidavit that Auto Shankar did ask or authorise the jail authorities or even the Inspector General of Prisons to follow adequate procedures to safeguard his right to privacy. If that is the case, the respondents are not obligated to defend his right to privacy and there is no prison rule which empowers the prison authority to do so. Furthermore, as previously stated, the possibility for any kind of action comes only after the publication, not before.


3. Whether a book can be published without the authorisation of the person concerned or authority

According to the judges, the book may even be released by the publishers with or without Shankar's or authorities' agreement or authorisation, based on public records. However, if they go further and publish anything beyond that, they may be infringing on his right to privacy and would be held accountable under the law. The right to privacy ceases to exist once an issue reaches a public record or domain and therefore becomes a permissible subject for discussion by the mainstream media, among others. Without the person's approval, no one can print anything at all about the foregoing things that are in his personal

domain, whether true or false, laudatory or critical. If he ever does so, he will be infringing on the person's right to privacy and will be held accountable in a damages case. If a person actively pushes oneself into controversy or deliberately attracts or creates a controversy, his or her position may be different.



This article is written by Pratham Bagani of Fergusson College.

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