Why the Andhra HC struck down order seeking to regulate public assemblies, processions

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Source: The post is based on the article “Freedom of speech the ‘bulwark’ of democracy: Why the Andhra HC struck down order seeking to regulate public assemblies, processions” published in The Indian Express on 20th May 2023.

Syllabus: GS 2 – Government Policies and Interventions for Development in various sectors and Issues arising out of their Design and Implementation.

Relevance: concerns associated with the Government Order of the Andhra Pradesh government.

News: The Andhra Pradesh High Court has struck down a Government Order (GO) issued by the Andhra Pradesh government that sought to regulate public meetings, processions, and assemblies on roads, highways, and streets.

What were the arguments presented by the government on its order and what did the court say?

Andhra Pradesh Government: Through the GO, the government sought to regulate public meetings or assembly on roads.  The government told the court that it decided to regulate the conduct of meetings without imposing a blanket ban to prevent accidents like stampedes.

The government further argued that roads are made for smooth movement of traffic. Therefore, if there is a hindrance to it, then the state can impose reasonable restrictions.

The state government relied on Sections 30, 30A, and 31 of the Police Act, 1861, to issue directions under the GO.

Court: The court clarified that Section 30 of the Police Act only gives authorities the power to regulate the conduct of assemblies, processions, etc., on public roads.

The Court emphasized that the power granted to the police or magistrate under these sections is limited to regulating assemblies, especially when there is road blockage.

The right to assemble or protest peacefully in streets, public places, etc. cannot be restricted totally by virtue of these sections of law.

The court further said that if the officer concerned thinks that the assembly may cause a breach of peace then he can ask the organisers to apply for a license and prescribe the conditions under which the procession can be held.

The court also held that an accident occurring at a particular place cannot be used as a “cause” to curtail the right to assemble on all other roads.

Instead, the cause of such incidents should be studied fully, and then guidelines can be issued to prevent repetition.

What did the court say about the right to assembly?

The court said that the “right to assemble, to protest peacefully, and to express one’s opinion freely” is an important freedom which cannot be taken away.

Freedom of speech is the “bulwark” of democracy and is regarded as the first in the hierarchy of liberties.

Therefore, this freedom should not be curtailed on anyone’s discretion and these rights can only be subject to a ‘reasonable restriction’.

The court also relied on the Supreme Court judgment of 2018 which laid down guidelines for peaceful assembly.

What were the guidelines laid down in the 2018 SC ruling?

SC in Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan v Union of India, laid down guidelines for regulating protests and demonstrations.

The guidelines – a) regulated the intended number of participants in such demonstrations, b) prescribed the minimum distance from the Parliament House, SC, and the residences of dignitaries within which no demonstrations were allowed, c) imposed restrictions on certain routes where the PM, Central Ministers, and Judges pass through, d) disallowed demonstrations when foreign dignitaries were visiting a place or route and e) disallowed demonstrators from carrying firearms, lathis, spears, swords, etc.

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