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Key Takeaways

  • In the historic case Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, the Supreme Court of India knocked down the rule in 2015, ruling it ‘open-ended and unconstitutionally ambiguous.’
  • Section 66A authorised cops to make arrests based on anything they deemed "offensive" or "menacing" or for the intention of inflicting irritation, inconvenience, or other harms in their subjective judgement.
  • This was welcomed as a significant step forward in the country's drive for freedom of expression and speech.
  • The article elaborately discusses the incidents of the judgement and what is the scenario after the judgement has been passed.

Introduction

The world is advancing in every sense including the technological and digital world which led to the enactment of the Information and Technology Act in the year 2000. Numerous cases of fraud and harassment via online platforms came into light, i.e. cyber-crimes under cyber law. This called for a provision which would ensure the safety of the citizens on the digital platform.

The Supreme Court in the judgement of Shreya Singhal v. Union of India struck down the Section 66A provision of the Information and Technology Act, 2000. The original Act did not include the impugned provision. It was later included by an amendment to the Act. This judgement came in the year 2015, prior to which, the Section was used to supress the free speech of the citizens, which made the Court rule in favour of declaring the specific provision as unconstitutional.

Factual Background

What triggered the petitioner to file a challenge against the validity of the provision? Two women were arrested by police under Section 66A of the IT Act for their comments on Facebook on the matter of shutting down Mumbai after a political leader died. They were later released and their prosecution was dismissed but this had already caused a lot of dissatisfaction and had drawn a lot of media attention. These women then went on to file the petition challenging the constitutional validity of the Section.

Everyone is aware of the restrictions imposed on the exercise of the Fundamental Rights. The Freedom of Speech and Expression has reasonable restrictions and the matter before the Court was to decide if the provision qualifies to fall under the restrictions or does it violate the Fundamental Right of free speech.

Court’s Observation

The Court analysed the discussion, advocacy, and incitement were three key notions of Freedom of Expression. The Court claims that just discussing or even advocating for a certain cause, no matter how unpopular, it still is at the heart of the right. And only when a discussion or advocacy amounts to incitement may the law restrict freedom. Since it makes no distinction between plain debate, and advocacy of a particular point of view, which may be bothersome, inconvenient, or grossly insulting to some; Section 66A has the potential to ban all forms of internet communications.

The Court went on to say that the law lacks a clear proximate relationship to public order protection. According to the Court, sending a communication with the intent of causing irritation or insult is sufficient to commit an offence under Section 66A. As a result, the legislation does not distinguish between widespread dissemination and dissemination to a single person, and the message does not have to show a manifest tendency to disrupt public order.

The main component of defamation, according to the Court, is harm to one's reputation. It was determined that the law does not address this goal because it also prohibits offensive utterances that may bother or inconvenience an individual without harming his reputation. The Government also failed to prove that the legislation is intended to prevent communications that inspire the commission of an offence, because creating irritation, inconvenience, danger, or being extremely offensive or having a menacing nature are not crimes under the Penal Code.

The Court also emphasised the clear distinction between material conveyed over the internet and other kinds of speech, allowing the Government to designate new offences for online communications. As a result, the Court dismissed petitioners' claim that Section 66A violated Article 14 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination.

Current Scenario

The Supreme Court earlier this month, six years after striking down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act of 2000, called its continued usage by law enforcement agencies in several states "a deplorable state of affairs" and demanded a response from the Centre.

The Centre has now written to states, requesting that they not file any new lawsuits under the abolished clause and to withdraw any existing cases. The Supreme Court had ordered all High Courts to send copies of its 2015 Shreya Singhal ruling to all district courts within eight weeks after hearing a plea from the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) over the Section's continued use.

Two police officials were fined Rs 10,000 apiece by the Karnataka High Court for filing a FIR under this Section. Bengal police had previously arrested BJP activist Priyanka Sharma for social media posts under the same Section ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The Supreme Court had stepped in to help with the latter.

Conclusion

For a variety of reasons, the outcome of this case of Shreya Singhal is extremely important in the history of the Supreme Court. In an unusual case, the Supreme Court has taken the unusual step of declaring a control law enacted by Parliament to be completely ill-conceived. The Court's decision has broadened the scope of our ability to express ourselves without reservation, while also limiting the state's ability to do so in only the most unusual of circumstances.

Once the Section has been struck down, it is important that the public and the authorities are made aware of the change, it has been 6 years since the judgement and we are still struggling with proper implementation of the judgement.


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