“Truth hurts! It has to be spoken. The least we can do is #StandWithPrashantBhushan,” tweeted Yogendra Yadav, since the Supreme Court informed the lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan and Twitter in a contempt suit on Wednesday 22 July.
This tweet was in response to a suo moto case that has been launched against Prashant Bhushan and Twitter India by a bench of Justices Arun Mishra, BR Gavai, and Krishna Murari in regards with two tweets posted by Bhushan. Twitter has since exploded with responses to the apex court order, with a #StandWithPrashantBhushan movement doing the rounds.
The situation with Prashant Bhushan
On Wednesday, a three Supreme Court judge bench consisting of Arun Mishra, BR Gavai, and Krishna Murari released a notice of contempt of court proceedings against both Prashant Bhushan and social media giant Twitter.
The Supreme Court observed, “We conclude, prima facie, that the above-cited remarks on Twitter have undermined the administration of justice and are capable of undermining the integrity and legitimacy of the Supreme Court institution in general and, in particular, the office of the Chief Justice of India in the eyes of the general public.”
Prashant Bhushan had said in a series of tweets that “democracy was ruined” and pointed to the position of the last four Chief Justices and the BJP government.
Prashant Bhushan additionally positioned out tweets with images of incumbent CJI SA Bobde sitting on a superbike, challenging him amid the coronavirus pandemic for breaching mask and social distancing norms. The SC bench asked Twitter why they didn’t delete outrageous tweets.
The response of officials of Twitter
Senior advocates Sajan Poovayya, on behalf of Twitter Communications India, told SC that Twitter Inc, USA, and not twitter India is the right party to the proceedings. The lawyer also argued that Twitter as a website should not be able to uninstall or censor tweets without clear court orders.
“Twitter is a standalone website. Without a court order, we cannot delete tweets, “Poovayya argued. Nevertheless, the bench questioned why the social media site hadn’t deleted the tweet even after the court took up the issue of suo moto contempt.
“As a court official, I would ask the court to pass orders,” Poovayya said, who then told the court that he would “advise his client” on the matter. The court also asked India’s attorney general to assist in the case, and will now hear the matter on August 5.
Meanwhile, the hashtag # StandWithPrashantBhushan has launched many social media posts to help the lawyer. The tweets and social media articles have also asked why during the corona pandemic the SC took up such a case of contempt.
Response of Twitter
Some of the arguments put forward in support of Prashant Bhushan were
- Supreme Court’s Constitution of India & Institution is far more sacrosanct than the views of a few citizens, entrusted with safeguarding these ethical foundations, but has repeatedly been ignored.
- Amid the pandemic, SC was quiet about violence against political prisoners and activists. Yet for questioning SC’s shortcomings, Prashant Bhushan who always stands for reality and innocents is charged for contempt.
- It’s a great time to optimize it’s bringing judicial and artificial ‘honor.’ The judiciary will reshape its attitude to masses and sincere commitments. This would not long become an archival site, either.
- The comment by Prashant Bhushan about the judges & the SCI is not a willful accusation. He aims to strengthen democracy, to elevate judicial status in the minds of Indians. SC will take the positives on these issues and drop all charges against him.
The tweets and social media articles have also asked why during the corona pandemic the SC took up such a case of contempt.
The problem with this situation
At a time when matters affecting the lives and livelihoods of people are fighting for its attention, when the pandemic has set off social and economic misery on an unprecedented scale when concerns remain about the efficacy of the response of the state when key constitutional cases have continued to drag on for years — such as the case of electoral bonds — and when the court has shown little urgency in the matter. During this moment, it is frustrating and troubling for the court to invoke its contempt authority with alacrity against its critics.
Contempt of court in a democracy is gradually an anachronism — it’s been circumscribed and dismissed in the US and UK. Throughout India, it remains a sweeping and narrowly worded offense that runs contrary to the own record of the Supreme Court throughout extending the meaning and reach of the constitutional right to freedom of expression.
The court’s inability to narrow it down by not insisting on an equally demonstrable connection with obstruction of the contemptuous act or speech to the justice system is exacerbated by what the Supreme Court did on Wednesday. This sends out a warning to national courts that the chilling force of contempt is here to stay. This is especially troubling as there is concern about a consolidation of executive power and the spread of a political culture with a diminishing room for disagreement and dissent.
For the on-the-one and on-the-other debate, social media isn’t ideally designed for nuance. Five years ago, the apex court extended the contours of freedom of expression and Article 19 into this noisy room at Shreya Singhal. The case of contempt against Bhushan by the Supreme Court shrinks the space — and itself.