Wattlala Town Hall Case
S.C. Application No. 199/8 The court held in favour of the petitioner.
The Fundamental Rights Application was heard on 21 July and again on 31st August before a Supreme Court Bench of three Judges comprising Atukorale J., G.P.S. de Silva, J and Jameel, J.
The Judgement was delivered by G.P.S. de Silva J., the other two judges concurring.
The following is the text of the Judgment.
G.P.S. DE SILVA, J:
The three petitioners, who are members of the Wattala branch of the organisation known as the Christian Workers Fellowship, complain in this application under Article 126 of the Constitution that the first respondent (Sub-Inspector of Police, Wattala) and the 2nd respondent (Chairman, Wattala-Mabole Urban Council) have prevented them from holding a seminar of Human Rights at the Urban Council Hall on 25th November 1987. They accordingly allege that both respondents have jointly and/or severally violated their fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association (Article 14(1)(a), (b) and (c) of the Constitution.) It is common ground that the first Petitioner who was the organiser of the seminar paid the stipulated fee to the Urban Council and obtained written permission from the 2nd respondent for the use of the Urban Council hall on 25th November 1987, in order to hold an Adult Education seminar. The formal application made by the first petitioner to the Urban Council is marked 2R2 and the written permission granted by the second respondent is marked 2R3. Wide publicity appears to have been given to the seminar as evidenced by a copy of the poster P4 and a copy of the letter of invitation P9. Both P4 and P9 figure prominently in these proceedings, as the ground of objection to the holding of the seminar was based on the content of these two documents.
The meeting was scheduled to commence at 4:30 p.m. According to the petitioners, a few minutes before 4:30 p.m., the 2nd respondent arrived at the Urban Council premises and without making any inquiry ordered the first petitioner "to go down and stop the meeting" which the first petitioner refused to do. The petitioners aver that the 2nd respondent made reference to the letter of invitation (P9) not being worded in the same way as the formal application made to the Urban Council for the use of the hall (2R2) but they were denied an opportunity to explain matters. Despite the order by the 2nd respondent to stop the meeting, the petitioners commenced the meeting. The 3rd petitioner who was the Chairman made a brief introductory speech and invited the 2nd petitioner to speak on Human Rights. Shortly after the 2nd petitioner commenced his speech, the 1st respondent appeared at the door of the hall in police uniform, had a brief discussion with the 1st and 2nd petitioners and thereafter requested the members of the audience to disperse. The meeting was thus abruptly brought to an end.
It is not disputed that the arrival of the 1st respondent on the scene was by reason of a telephone call given by the 2nd respondent to the Officer-in-Charge, Wattala Police Station. The telephone message has been produced marked 1R1 and it establishes the fact that the 2nd respondent had informed the police that there was a possibility of a breach of the peace for the reason that a group of persons are holding a meeting "on a subject contrary to the permission granted." The 2nd respondent has specifically requested the police to intervene and stop the meeting. Hence the petitioners aver in their petition that the respondent terminated the meeting "on the instruction, directions and instigation of the 2nd respondent."
What then is the 2nd respondent's answer to the petitioner's case that it was he who was actually responsible for the abrupt termination of the meeting for which permission had already been granted by him? Mr. R.K.W. Gunasekera, Counsel for the 2nd respondent, strenuously contended before us that his client had every right to eject the petitioners from the hall, as they were in breach of the conditions upon which permission had been granted to hold the meeting. Mr. Gunasekera referred us to the application made by the 1st petitioner for the use of the hall (2R2). This document specifically states that the hall is required for an "Adult Education Class." Again, Counsel pointed out that in the license granted by the 2nd respondent (2R3) the purpose for which the hall was hired was set out as "Adult Education Class." It is right to state here that Mr. Gunasekera very properly conceded that whether the meeting is called a "class" or a "seminar" was not material to his case and he does not rely on such verbal distinction.
Mr. Gunasekera urged that the emphasis was on the words "Adult Education" in both 2R2 and 2R3. Permission was granted by the 2nd respondent to hold an Adult Education Class or seminar and nothing else. On the other hand Mr. Gunasekera pointed out that in neither post P4 nor in the letter of invitation P9 was there any reference to "Adult Education" and that the topic for discussion was given as "Supreme Court decision on Human Rights." At this point it is relevant to set out the contents of P4 and P9 (as translated) for it is on these two documents that the 2nd respondent strongly relied'
P4 reads thus:-
"Decisions of the Supreme Court on Human Rights.
Chairman: Rev. Bro Edwin Ambrose, at Wattala Town Hall,
Speakers: Basil Fernando, Attorney-at-Law,
Vijaya Vidyasagara, Attorney-at-Law,
Siri Nanayakkara, Attorney-at-Law, and other speakers.
1978, November 25, Wednesday 4:30 p.m.
Organised by: Christian Workers Fellowship, Wattala Branch."
P9 reads as follow:-
"Christian Workers Fellowship, Wattala Branch.
Supreme Court Decisions on Human Rights
In recent times the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has made a number of very important decisions on Human Rights. These are very important in relation to arrests, detention, assaults and torture and unequal treatment before the law and other questions relating to human rights. It is essential today to impart a wide education on these.
As one of the first steps towards this, our organisation will hold a seminar on 25th of November, 1987 at 4:30 p.m. at Wattala Town Hall.
The main lecture will be a summary of these decisions of the Supreme Court, and Mr. Basil Fernando, Attorney-at-Law, will deliver that lecture.
Rev. Bro Edwin Ambrose will chair the meeting.
We invite you to attend this meeting and kindly request you to bring your friends too."
It was the contention of Mr. Gunasekera that "Adult Education" was a well known concept which has certain specific connotations but that a discussion of the Supreme Court judgments would not fall within the usual meaning associated with "Adult Education." Mr. Gunasekera drew our attention to paragraph 8 of the 2nd respondent's affidavit where he averred:-
"………On reading P4 and P9 I saw reference to the Supreme Court decisions and felt alarmed that the meeting was not an ordinary educational meeting but a protest meeting…………….I confronted the 1st petitioner and told him that permission had not been granted for the use of the hall for the purposes described in P4 and P9 and that therefore I appealed to him and the 2nd and 3rd petitioners whom I know, not to proceed with the meeting."
In short, Mr. Gunasekera's submission was that the apprehension entertained by the 2nd respondent was reasonable in the circumstances and that his conduct in seeking the assistance of the police to stop the meeting must be viewed in the light of the specific purpose for which the petitioners had obtained permission to use the hall. Discussion of the Supreme Court decisions in relation to Human Rights, Counsel maintained, was not the kind of subject appropriate for discussion in an Adult Education class or seminar.
On a consideration of the submissions of Counsel and the material placed before us, it seems to me that the question for decision is whether the petitioners had violated the condition upon which the 2nd respondent had granted permission for the use of the hall by the petitioners. The petitioners contend that a discussion of the Supreme Court decisions in relation to Human Rights is by no means alien to the subject of Adult Education. As rightly submitted by Mr. Govin Dayasiri, Counsel for the petitioners, the specific question which arises for our consideration is whether it could reasonably be said that a review of the decisions of the Supreme Court in relation to Human Rights falls within the subject of Adult Education. In this connection Mr. Dayasiri referred us to a helpful discussion on "Adult Education" contained in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol.-1, (1977) Edn., page 97. There is here a classification of Adult Education and one of the categories given is,
"Education for civic, political and community competence. (Such education includes all kinds of education relating to government, community development, public and international affairs, voting and political participation and so forth)."
It would appear that "Adult Education" is a concept covering a wide field and is not basically different from the concept of "education." In my opinion, there is little doubt that a discussion of the Supreme Court decisions on Human Rights falls well within the area of "adult education." The position of the respondents that the topic set down for discussion as evidenced by P4 and P9 is not in accordance with the purpose for which the hall was hired is not tenable. I accordingly hold that the petitioners were not in breach of the conditions of the license granted to them by the 2nd respondent in organising a seminar on the subject of "Decisions of the Supreme Court on Human Rights."
Freedom of speech and expression necessarily includes the freedom to impart knowledge, to disseminate knowledge to propagate ideas. "Knowledge" is not confined to any particular branch or learning. It seems to me that a meaningful discussion on Human Rights would not be complete without reference to the relevant Supreme Court decisions. The Supreme Court is, as observed by Sharvananda, J. (as he was then) in Palihawadana vs A.G. and others – (F.R. decisions, Vol. 1., p. 3) "the protector and guarantor of fundamental rights." Therefore I am of the opinion that a discussion of the Supreme Court decisions on human rights would be a perfectly legitimate exercise of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution.
"Freedom of speech and expression consists primarily not only in the liberty of the citizen to speak and write what he chooses, but in the liberty of the public to hear and read, what it needs……….The basic assumption in a democratic polity is that government shall be based on the consent of the governed. The consent of the governed implies not only that consent shall be free but also that it shall be grounded on adequate information and discussion aided by the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources… The right of people to hear is within the concept of the freedom of speech. Freedom of discussion must embrace all issues about which information is needed to enable the members of a society to cope with the exigencies of their period….
"per Sharvananda, C.J. in M. Joseph Perera and others vs. A.G. (S.C. 107-109/86, S.C. Minutes of 25.5.87).
The conduct of both respondents in terminating the meeting was clearly, an infringement of the petitioner's freedom of speech and expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly.
I must refer to another aspect of the respondents' case. In the telephone message given to the police, the 2nd respondent speaks of the possibility of a breach of the peace. The 1st respondent in his affidavit makes a bare assertion that he noticed "that the crowd was unruly." On the other hand, the petitioners have produced several photographs of the audience present in the hall. One of the photographs shows the 1st respondent addressing those present in the hall. These photographs completely belie the story of an unruly or boisterous crowd. It was a peaceful and disciplined group of persons who had come to participate in the seminar. Therefore no issue relating to the restriction of fundamental rights in the interests of "public order" arises for our consideration in these proceedings.
In the result, I hold that the petitioners are entitled to a declaration that both the 1st and 2nd respondents have infringed two fundamental rights of the petitioners namely, the freedom of speech and expression (Article 14(1) (a)) and the freedom of peaceful assembly (Article 14(1) (b)).
The petitioners have also prayed for damages and compensation. While the 1st petitioner has claimed a sum of Rs. 25,000/- as damages, the 2nd and 3rd petitioners each claim a sum of Rs. 15,000/-. As regards the 1st respondent, Senior State Counsel, Mr. Asoka de Silva rightly submitted that the material on record shows that he acted throughout bona fide, upon the complaint and the request made by the 2nd respondent. In these circumstance, we make no award of damages or compensation as against the 1st respondent. The case against the 2nd respondent, however, stands in a somewhat different footing. There can be no doubt that the decision to terminate the meeting was his decision. Although he too acted bona fide, yet through a mistaken view of the nature of the meeting he had wrongfully terminated it, in violation of the fundamental rights of the petitioners. We accordingly direct the 2nd respondent to pay a sum of Rs. 1500/- (Rupees One Thousand Five Hundred) as compensation to the 1st petitioner, who was the organiser of the meeting. The 1st petitioner is also entitled to a sum of Rs. 250/- as costs pr proceedings payable by the 2nd respondent.
ATUKORALE, J., : I agree.
JAMEEL, J., : I agree.