Shreya Singhal v. Union of India: Judgment Widening the scope of freedom of Speech and Expression

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”

– George Orwell

Introduction:

Shreya Singhal v. Union of India[i] is a historic case in which the Supreme Court of India emphasized the importance of freedom of expression and speech. Section 66A of the Information Technology Act of 2000 was struck down by the court as a violative of free speech and expression in a democratic setting. The decision had a significant part in expanding the scope of free speech and expression and giving citizens the ability to exercise their free will in terms of thought, speech, and expression, thus ensuring the essence of democracy as well as individual liberty.

Facts:

Two women were arrested for allegedly making disrespectful and inappropriate comments on Facebook concerning the propriety of shutting down Mumbai after the death of a prominent leader. The arrests were made under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act of 2000, which punishes anyone who sends grossly offensive information through a computer resource or communication device with knowledge of its falsity with the intent of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, insult, injury, hatred, or ill will.

Despite their release, the incident drew widespread media attention and criticism, and there were nationwide demonstrations against police abuse of authority by claiming Section 66A and restricting freedom of speech and expression.

The women later filed a writ suit under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, claiming that Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 violated their basic right to freedom of speech and expression. Under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, it was claimed that the wordings of Section 66A were unclear and arbitrary.

Issues:

  1. Whether Sections 66-A, 69-A, and 79 of the Indian Constitution violated Article 19(1)(a)?
  2. Whether arrests of netizens for remarks on social media violative of the Indian Constitution’s Article 14 and Article 21?

Arguments:

Petitioner-

  • Article 66A of the Information Technology Act of 2000 infringes Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression. The petitioners stated that raising a commotion, causing inconvenience, and so on are not protected by Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution’s reasonable restrictions.
  • Section 66A is unclear in nature, and it has caused an infirmity because it does not properly define the vocabulary used under the section, and it has left the door open for law enforcement authorities to interpret the section as they see fit. As a result, the restriction is missing and not provided by the section.
  • As there is no “intelligible differentia” as to why just methods of communication are emphasised by Section 66A, the section violates Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. This leads in self-discrimination, which, violates Article 14, 21 of the constitution.
  • The petitioners further claimed that the clause gave the authorities arbitrary powers in interpreting it.

Respondent-

  • On the other hand, the Respondents claimed that abuse of laws and powers by government should not be the main basis for declaring a law ultra-vires the constitution.
  • Broad terminologies are established in law to safeguard individuals from exploiting laws through whatever medium; therefore, ambiguity in any legislation should not be used as a basis for declaring it illegal.
  • It was also contended that lawmaking is a legislative function, and that the Legislature knows best, and that the Judiciary should only intervene to interpret the law if there is a clear violation of Part III of the constitution.

Judgment:

The division bench, comprised of Justice Chelameswar and Justice Rohinton Nariman, handed down the decision. The court ruled as follows:

  1. Section 66-A of the Information Technology Act of 2000 should be repealed in its entirety because it violates Article 19(1)(a) and does not fall under the exception set forth in Article 19(2)
  2. The Act’s Section 69A is constitutionally legitimate.
  3. Section 79 is legitimate subject to reading of section 79(3)(b) of the Act.
  4. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution is not violated by these sections.

Analysis:

The court found that the terms in 66A are totally open-ended and undefined, and that they are not protected by Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution. The court found that Section 66A had no proximate relationship or relevance to producing public disorder or incitement to commit a crime, and hence it was struck down. The court took the position that the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression must be protected, and that legislation cannot infringe on this right by invoking the protection of Article-19(2) of the Constitution. In addition, the court used the severability rule to strike down just the elements that were ambiguous and arbitrary. The entire law does not have to be declared null and void.

Conclusion:

By supporting the citizen’s right to form opinions and express them in the public arena, the Court’s decision increases the boundaries for freedom of speech and expression while also preserving the essence of democracy. This decision is a watershed moment for Article 19(1)(a) since everyone has the freedom to create and express political beliefs without fear of being subjected to excessive and arbitrary restrictions.

References:

  1. Vaibhav Suppal, Shreya Singhal V. Union Of India: A Case Which Rejuvenated The Liberty To Speech And Expression In The Country, Blog iPleaders, https://blog.ipleaders.in/shreya-singhal-v-union-india-case-rejuvenated-liberty-speech-expression-country/
  2. Aanchal Chhallani, Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, Jus Dicere, https://www.jusdicere.in/shreya-singhal-v-union-of-india/#Summary_of_court_decision_and_judgment
  3. Eshanee Bhattacharya, Shreya Singhal v Union of India: Case Comment, Legal Bites, https://www.legalbites.in/shreya-singhal-v-union-of-india/
  4. Aditya Tripathi, Case Summary: Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India, LawLex.Org,  https://lawlex.org/lex-bulletin/case-summary-shreya-singhal-vs-union-of-india/18989
  5. Rukhman Singh, Shreya Singhal v U.O.I, Legal Services India, http://www.legalservicesindia.com/article/2473/Shreya-Singhal-v-U.O.I.html

[i] Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, (2013) 12 SCC 73.

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