Keeping speech free in India

Friday, April 10, 2015

This peice was originally published as a UofTMagazine's online exclusive.

Photo: Reuters Pictures

Photo: Reuters Pictures

Law students work with writers and journalists in Delhi and Mumbai to ease India’s limits on freedom of expression

India has long been seen as a regional leader in human rights protection. But free speech is under attack in the world’s largest democracy. Newspapers have recounted numerous attempts by state and private interests to intimidate and censor writers and academics, and a recent UNESCO report named India among the 10 most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist.

The situation has prompted the Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program to team up with PEN Canada and PEN International to study media freedom in India. (The two organizations have joined forces before to study free speech in Honduras and Mexico.) Last year, a pair of law students spent two weeks in Delhi and Mumbai, working alongside PEN representatives, speaking to lawyers and judges about challenges to free speech, and to writers and publishers affected by government censorship.

Although India’s constitution guarantees the right to free speech, a complex web of laws provide at least seven criminal laws and numerous regulatory offences that allow censorship of speech, says Renu Mandhane, executive director of the faculty’s International Human Rights Program. Speech in India can be censored, for example, on the grounds that some people find it offensive.

As part of the program, the students spent several months reviewing relevant Indian and international case law, and then learned through their visit how the issues play out on the ground. “The whole point of the project for students is to get beyond the case law research,” says Mandhane.

In May, PEN and the human rights program will jointly release a fact-finding report on India’s limits on freedom of expression – entirely researched and written by students – that will suggest repealing and amending existing laws. The report will also make recommendations to stem police and judicial corruption, and to build solidarity among writers, journalists and bloggers.

”This has been a defining experience for our students,” says Mandhane, “who are involved in every step of the project.” Amy Tang, a third-year law student who travelled to India last year, said she gained hands-on experience and skills that she will be able to apply to law – or to any profession. “It’s had such an incredible influence on my life and the lawyer I want to be.”

– Alice Taylor