Imposing moral paternalism on students infringes their fundamental right to privacy: Kerala High Court

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n a noteworthy move, the High Court of Kerala at Ernakulam quashed the decision of a college to expel two adult students for ‘falling in love and eloping, and thereby causing indiscipline. The petitioners who were first year and second year students of the college, fell in love with each other and eloped after realising that both the college and their parents disapproved of their relationship. When the woman’s mother lodged a complaint stating that her daughter was missing, the Magistrate set her free and at liberty, and after meeting her came to the conclusion that she was not wrongfully detained.

In the meantime, the petitioners, who were both majors, married. Whereas one of the petitioners, the wife, wanted to resume her education at the college which expelled her, in order to complete her BBA course, the other petitioner, the husband, decided to discontinue his education at the college and only sought for the return of his academic records retained by the college.

The Court stated that the question before it is whether a love affair, which led to a marriage, can amount to misconduct, and breach the discipline of the college

Justice A Muhamed Mustaque, who wrote the judgment for the High Court, opened his judgment evocatively by stating: “Love is blind and an innate humane instinct. It is all about individuals and their freedom. ‘Is love a freedom or fetter’ is the question that is raised in this writ petition in the context of imposition of academic discipline.”

The Court stated that the question before it is whether a love affair, which led to a marriage, can amount to misconduct, and breach the discipline of the college. Every authority vested with power, the Court said, should discharge such power in the furtherance of a legitimate aim, and not for “imposing personal moral values”, in this case, of the persons running the college. It was held that the college administration’s right to administer the institution and maintaining discipline, does not include the right to impose “moral paternalism” upon the students, irrespective of the latter’s disagreement to such values of the former.

Educational institutions, it was noted, must be places of “neutral value” where moral decisions are left to the students. It was found that the college’s decision in the present case is also a case of imposing moral values of the persons in the management on the students

Educational institutions, it was noted, must be places of “neutral value” where moral decisions are left to the students. It was found that the college’s decision in the present case is also a case of imposing moral values of the persons in the management on the students. To that extent, the Court noted that “it is a sin for some and not a sin for others” and that these choice between such competing moralities is what constitutes “the essence of liberty.” The Court, however, stated that if at all any authority can impose its morality on the society at large, it is the legislature (legal paternalism), that too only in the “larger interests of the society.”

The Court noted that, in light of the Supreme Court judgment in the K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India, the choice to have an affair with or not to have an affair with is a personal choice, and as such, is the fundamental core of the liberty guaranteed by the Constitution

The Court reiterated that it is a court’s constitutional responsibility to recognise a person’s freedom to have a choice and not to ensure that moral values of either the college authorities or students prevail. The Court noted that, in light of the Supreme Court judgment in the K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India, the choice to have an affair with or not to have an affair with is a personal choice, and as such, is the fundamental core of the liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. It held that, “Choosing a life partner or choosing a way of life is the discretion based on individual autonomy” and the same has to be respected, considering that the right to privacy now is a fundamental right.

Since personal autonomy is the essence of the right to privacy, the acts of the college administration are violative of the students’ right to privacy

As such, the Court came to the conclusion that the college’s authorities were imposing their personal moral values in the garb of academic students on students, and are therefore invading the personal autonomy of such students. Since personal autonomy is the essence of the right to privacy, the acts of the college administration are violative of the students’ right to privacy. The college authorities, according to the Court, failed to understand that intimate personal relationship is a matter of privacy of the individual, which cannot be interfered with by any authority.

Justice Mustaque noted that a co-ordinate bench of the same High Court in a similar case held that the act of elopement and living together without marriage amounts to indiscipline, and refused to interfere with the decision of a college suspending such students, but came to the conclusion that in light of K S Puttaswamy v. Union of India, that judgment lost its “significance as a legal precedent.”

Read the full judgment here

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