The Supreme Court on Monday in urging the central and state governments to proceed against political and religious personages who make hate speeches has rightly taken cognisance of an important issue that is now affecting our body politic. The Supreme Court has made this observation while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) which has sought the framing of guidelines to curb elected representatives and political and religious leaders from delivering hate speeches in pursuance of their narrow political goals, stating that such speeches were destroying the social fabric of the nation. Such speech is, without doubt, a major contributing factor to the escalation of tensions between groups and can lead to destructive confrontations. Such destructive speech often involves the use of provocative and insulting words and ideas to refer to opponents which may be seen as so offensive that they elicit a violent reaction. Politicians of various hues as well as others, in order to please their own constituencies and to gain support or win vote-banks often air prejudices and make speeches that vilify others on grounds of religion or ethnicity or place of origin. Thus, there are the hate speeches made by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray which are targeted against citizens, particularly those who are migrant workers. The speeches of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader Akbaruddin Owaisi, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s international working president Praveen Togadia, may be found threatening by particular communities.
Yet, the Supreme Court, while dealing with this problem must not lose sight of its many dimensions, particularly with defining hate speech. Hate speech laws or guidelines, if put in place, must not dampen efforts to honestly discuss the tough issues that underlie most conflicts for too tough hate speech prohibitions may lead to a refusal to talk at all, thereby preventing constructive problem solving and allowing tensions to fester. Hate speech prohibitions also violate freedom of speech ideals which are to be valued. The right of all citizens to freedom of speech, guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of our constitution, is, however, not expressed in absolute terms as in the American Constitution but is subject to the imposition of ‘reasonable restrictions’ such as those in the interests of ‘public order’. Our courts have in the past used this expression in the constitution to justify restrictions on hate speech. The Supreme Court, in framing any guidelines to curb hate speech, must ensure a balance between preserving the inalienable right to free speech and the maintenance of public order.