The Delhi High Court on Monday vacated the 2017 gag order which restricted the publication of comments, articles etc, pertaining to the 'MeToo' sexual harassment allegations against venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy.
The order was passed by a single bench of Justice Jayant Nath in a suit for defamation filed by Murthy seeking a decree for a sum of Rs. 2,50,00,000/-, against eighteen defendants with respect to their alleged defamatory posts/comments.
Murthy had claimed that the defendants had circulated "sensational" posts against him, misleading a common man to draw a conclusion that he was in the habit of exploiting and harassing young women entrepreneurs. He claimed that such allegations were made purely out of spite as he had refused to invest in their business ideas.
The bench prima facie observed that the defendants cannot be said to be misusing their freedom of speech.
"The facts show that as per defendants No.1, 2, 15 and 16, they have had an unpleasant or perhaps more than unpleasant experience with the plaintiff. These facts, the said defendants and other defendants seek to place in public domain. Prima facie, it cannot be said that the said defendants have no case whatsoever or are misusing the freedom of speech to tarnish/defame the plaintiff."
Murthy had joined 18 individuals/ media portals as Defendant-parties for publication/ re-publication of three defamatory posts- first being started by Defendant no. 1; second by Defendant no. 2 and third- jointly by Defendants no. 15 and 16.
He had sought injunction against reporters such as Dipti Nair and Pankaj Mishra, who had written an articles titled "Sexual Harassment - Underbelly of the Indian Startup ecosystem exposed" and "Mahesh Murthy in new sexual misconduct charges; Seedfund says had heard other rumours" respectively against Murthy.
Others defendants included women such as author Rashmi Bansal, entrepreneurs Pooja Chauhan and Wamika Iyer, who had made allegations against him. Apart from them, publications such as FactorDaily, YourStory, and SheThePeople were arrayed as defendants.
The court observed that the plea appeared to be a "bald plea".
"The plea appears to be a bald plea. There appears to be no co-relation between the publications done by defendant No. 1 in LinkedIn, defendant No. 2 in Indian ceo and defendants No. 15 and 16 in factordaily. Prima facie, the acts of alleged publications of defendants No. 1, 2, 15 and 16 appear to be distinct acts and do not prima facie justify joining all the defendants in one suit. Each of these publications appear to arise out of separate alleged incidents," the court said.
Moving back to the gag order, as regards the first two defendants the court observed,
"it cannot be said that the said defendants are behaving in a malicious or mala fide manner. The plaintiff claims that defendants No.1 and 2 were disgruntled as the plaintiff rejected their business proposals. Hence, they took the step of publishing defamatory posts. This allegation of the plaintiff at this stage appears to be a bad plea."
Regarding the publication made by defendants No. 15 and 16 the court said,
"the only plea of the plaintiff is that this relates to alleged events more than a decade old. The plaintiff admits that defendants No. 15 and 16 are successful individuals. There is no explanation given why defendants No. 15 and 16 have chosen to make the necessary publications. There appears to be no reason to conclude that the said defendants have acted in a mala fide manner."
The court said that it was not convinced, in the facts and circumstances of the case, to "fetter the narration" of alleged facts by the Defendants.
In doing so the court has heavily relied upon the two-pronged "test of necessity and proportionality," for restricting of free speech. Moreover, the court clarified that injunction order should only be passed if reasonable alternate methods would not prevent the risk.
Finally stating that the plaint appeared to be a "hotch potch" and that Murthy had failed to make out a prima facie case against the Defendants the court held,
"The said defendants have a right to exercise their right of freedom of speech. If these incidents and claims of the said defendants are in trial proved to be false, the plaintiff would have a right to claim damages."
The Court disposed of the interim applications, vacating the injunction orders, saying :
"The plaintiff has failed to make out a prima facie case. In my opinion, balance of convenience is also not in favour of the plaintiff".
Recently, the Bombay High Court quashed the criminal proceedings pending against Murthy on allegations of outraging the modesty of a woman 14 years ago on the grounds of limitation, noting that continuance of the said proceedings would be an abuse of process of law.
Case Title: Mahesh Murthy v. Pooja Chauhan & Ors.
Case No.: CS(OS) 123/2017
Quorum: Justice Jayant Nath
Appearance: Advocates Jayant K. Mehta, Bani Dikshit and Drishti Harpalani (for Petitioner); Advocates Swati Sukumar Subhashree, Samrat Nigam, Abhimanyu Walia, Aayush Agarwala (for Defendants)
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