Shreya Singhal v U.O.I. – The case that Assured Independent Online Speech

In 2015 the Supreme Court gave a landmark judgement and struck down section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. This case of Shreya Singhal v. Union of India revolves around the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, which challenged the constitutional validity of section 66A.

Section 66A stated that it was punishable to intentionally send “information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character” by means of a computer resource or a communication device.

By revoking Section 66A, in Shreya Singhal, the Supreme Court has provided a new definition to free speech in India and additionally carried out its function to carry out legal reforms for Indians.  Various provisions of IPC and Sections 66B and 67C of the IT Act are sufficient to cope with these kinds of crimes and it is wrong to mention that Section 66A has given rise to new sorts of crimes.

Title of the case: Shreya Singhal vs Union of India

Citation: AIR 2015 SC 1523

Court: Supreme Court of India

Bench: J. Chelameswar, Rohinton Fali Nariman

Parties: Petitioner: Shreya Singhal

             Respondent: Union of India

Brief Facts of the case:

In 2012, two girls named Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan expressed their complaints about a bandh called by Shiv Sena members on the death of Shiv Sena leader Bala Thakeri in Maharashtra. The two girls were arrested by Mumbai police. The petitioners were accused of participating in posting comments on Facebook and liking comments at the same time, which triggered widespread public protests.

Although the police later released the girls and brushed off their prosecution, the incident invoked widespread media interest and criticism. The girls then filed a judicial motion in accordance with Article 32 of the Constitution, accusing Article 66A of the Information Technology Act of 2000 of infringing on the individual’s right to freedom of speech and expression.

Issues involved:

1) Whether Sections 66A, 69A and 79 of the IT Act are constitutionally valid.

2) Whether Section 66A of IT Act violates the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.

Petitioner’s Argument:

  1. Section 66A of IT Act 2000 clashes with Article 19(1)(a) and infringes the fundamental right of Freedom of Speech and Expression.
  2. The petitioners argued that section 66A is indistinct in nature and does not outline the term used under it. There can be a lot of interpretations of this section and thus can be interpreted according to the way the law enforcement pleases. Needless to say, the limitation is absent and not provided under this said section.
  3. They further argued that the inflicting of disturbance, trouble and so on aren’t included below the reasonable restrictions as expressed below Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution.
  4. Section 66A violates the Article 14 of the Indian Constitution as there is no “Intelligible differentia” as to why just communication practices are focused on Article 66A. This leads to self-discrimination, which also violates Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.
  5. The petitioners also argued that section 66A being vague was providing unlimited power to the authorities to interpret it.

Respondent’s Argument:

  1. It is the legislature who’s accountable to fulfill the wants of individuals and the court is permitted to intervene only in case of violation of Part-III of the Constitution. The respondent argued that there was a presumption supporting the constitutionality of the law in question.
  2. The Court of law can interpret the law appropriately, including the complexity of the rules.
  3. It was contended that the possibility of abuse of section couldn’t be a probable ground for affirming the section as invalid.
  4. Broad terminologies are used in the law to protect the rights of citizens from those who infringe them by the means of this medium.
  5. The ambiguity of law is not a ground to pronounce a legislation ultra-vires to the Constitution of India, especially when it is deemed to be qualified and just in nature on the other aspects.

Judgement:

Section 66A was held unconstitutional by the Supreme court, stating that, “Every expression used is nebulous in meaning. What may be offensive to one may not be offensive to another.” This section was held to be indistinct in nature and was infringing Article 19(1)(a) which provides the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression, it was also held that this Section 66A is not a reasonable restriction to the said fundamental right.

The court said, “we are unable to agree with counsel for the petitioners that there is no intelligible differentia between the medium of print, broadcast and real live speech as opposed to speech on the internet. The intelligible differentia is clear – the internet gives any individual a platform which requires very little or no payment through which to air his views.”

The Supreme Court conjointly read down Section 79 and Rules mentioned in the Section. It command that online intermediaries would solely be indebted to take down content on receiving an order from a court or government authority

While annulling section 66 A of the IT Act, the court declared Section 69A as constitutional, which gave the Government the power to choose to take down content material from the Internet, retaining that it did not be afflicted by the infirmities in Section 66A or Section 79.

Critical Analysis:

In my opinion, the offensive term in section 66A of the IT Act is very unclear. It may be offensive to one person, but may not be offensive to another. In addition, it was not an offensive speech or statement, but a statement challenging the rationality of the Mumbai shut down. Will the death of anyone, regardless of importance or status, cause the commercial capital of our country to come to a complete standstill? This argument is incomprehensible to me. I believe the police acted hastily and there is no reason to arrest those girls. The police acted hastily, probably because of the chaos of the political party.

 The contradiction between freedom of opinion and freedom of speech recurs, which can cause malice, hostility, threats, etc. In most cases, our police are psychologically affected by the sensitivity of political dynamics and the consequences of violence, rather than accepting fair and correct legal decisions. This is because the police are being monitored and responding to their political bosses, not the laws of the state and the judiciary. I think the police are trying to protect themselves from political consequences, rather than doing morally and legally correct things.

Conclusion:

The court found that the expressions utilized in 66A are absolutely open-ended and undefined and it isn’t always included beneath neath Article 19(2) of Indian Constitution. Section 66A clearly had no proximate connection or link with inflicting disturbance to public order or with incitement to dedicate an offence and therefore it was struck down by the court. The technique followed by the court was to defend the essential right of freedom of speech and expression and in no manner, the law can put off this right by claiming the guard under Article-19(2) of the Constitution.

Also, the court by making use of the rule of severability has struck down only those sections which had been indistinct and arbitrary in nature. The complete law has to no need to be held as invalid.

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