Freedom of speech and expression is a natural right guaranteed under the Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India. Freedom of speech and expression implies the right to express one’s thoughts and ideas freely via any medium, such as gestures, signs, verbal communication, print media, radio or television.
Through several landmark judgments, the Supreme Court has broadened the scope of the right to freedom of speech and expression. It has held that the government has no monopoly over the electronic media. Further it has ruled that forms of commercial speech, such as advertisements are included in the purview of this right called freedom of speech and expression. However, the court has mentioned that the government is authorized to regulate commercial advertisements. It can restrict deceptive, unfair, false and misleading advertisements.
Constitution of India: Restrictions on Offensive Advertisements
Article 19 (2) of Constitution of India provides that the government can impose restrictions on the right to freedom of speech and expression to protect the country’s integrity, security, public order, morality and decency and to prevent contempt of court, vulgarity, incitement to an offence and defamation.
However, advertisers often view these rules and regulations as violating their right to freedom of speech. Some ads, in particular, were considered derogatory and banned by the government, such as:
A deodorant advertisement that showed a man accompanied by scantily clad women was banned by the government after several complaints were received from viewers about the advertisement being offensive to family viewers.
A soft drink advertisement that showed a child bringing the drink for the Indian cricket players was banned after complaints from child labor activists.
Advertisements of two underwear ads were banned due to vulgarity and indecency. Objectionable content in ad is usually a reason for taking it off channels.
Constitution of India: Restrictions to Publish Yellow Pages Directory
In a landmark case of Tata Press Ltd. v. Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd, (1995) 5 SCC 139, the litigant - Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) - is a public sector company and a licensee within the meaning of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. It has telecommunication services in Delhi and Mumbai. The MTNL used to publish and circulate a telephone directory with white pages but after 1987, it started giving contracts to outsiders to publish this directory. Further, the MTNL allowed the contractors to earn revenue by publishing advertisements in the directory.
The Tata Press Ltd also published the Tata Press Yellow Pages. The MTNL and the Union Government filed a case before the Bombay Civil Court that it has a monopoly in printing and publication of list of telephone subscribers and that Tata Press Ltd. has no right to do the same. It was pointed out that Tata Press was violating the provisions of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. The court rejected the MTNL plea and an appeal reached the High Court. The High Court ruled in favor of MTNL, following which Tata Press Ltd challenged the High Court’s decision before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that the MTNL has no right to hold back Tata Press Ltd. from publishing ‘Tata Yellow Pages.’