What is Free Speech and Reasonable Restrictions?

Free speech is an important principle of democracy as it allows an individual to attain self-fulfillment, assist in discovery of truth and strengthen the capacity of a person to take informed decisions. However, such freedom of speech often poses difficult questions at times exceeding the limit of reasonable restrictions. Thus, it becomes important to differentiate between freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution, reasonable restrictions imposed on such freedom and grounds on which sedition can be imposed by State authorities.

Article 19(1) guarantees freedom of speech and expression subject to reasonable limitations under Article 19(2) on grounds of –

  • interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India,
  • the security of the State,
  • friendly relations with foreign States,
  • public order, decency or morality, or
  • in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.


  • Sedition as defined in Indian Penal Code under section 124A. “ Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”
  • The expression “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.
  • Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under sedition.
  • Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.


The Law Commission of India was asked to consider section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 which deals with sedition.

Some of the important observations of Law Commission in its consultation paper (released in August, 2018) are:

  • Dissent and criticism of the government are essential ingredients of a robust public debate in a vibrant democracy. Thus, if the country is not open to positive criticism, there lies little difference between the pre- and post-Independence eras.
  • Right to criticise one’s own history and the right to offend are rights protected under free speech under Article 19 of the Constitution. While it is essential to protect national integrity, it should not be misused as a tool to curb free speech.
  • Every restriction on free speech and expression must be carefully scrutinised to avoid unwarranted restrictions.
  • In a democracy, singing from the same songbook is not a benchmark of patriotism. People should be at liberty to show their affection towards their country in their own way.
  • An expression of frustration over the state of affairs cannot be treated as sedition. For merely expressing a thought which is not in consonance with the policy of the government of the day, a person should not be charged under the provision of sedition.
  • The Commission also asked whether it would be worthwhile to rename Section 124A and find a suitable substitute for the term – sedition.

Thus, mere criticism of the government or its policies does not amount to sedition. Such a dissent or criticism must be accompanied by incitement to violence or intention or tendency to create public disorder or cause disturbance of public peace which is against the interests of sovereignty and integrity of India or security of the state – for invoking charges under sedition.

  • The Supreme Court in Romesh Thapar vs State of Madras declared that unless the freedom of speech and expression threaten the security of or tend to overthrow the State, any law imposing restriction upon the same would not fall within the purview of Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
  • In Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar,1962, a Constitution Bench had ruled in favour of the constitutional validity of Section 124A (sedition) in the IPC. The Court in this case:

Considered the importance of government established by law; and

Struck a balance between the right to free speech and ο expression and the power of the legislature to restrict

On Sedition – The Court in Kedar Nath stated that:

Creating public disorder by the use of actual violence or incitement to violence thereby disturbing public peace. such right

Sedition is an offence against the state and any act which have the effect of subverting the Government by bringing that Government into contempt or hatred, or creating disaffection against it will be considered as sedition, including feeling of disloyalty to the Government established by law or enmity to it.

On striking a balance – The Court held that a citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the Government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder.

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