Title- Shreya Singhal Vs. Union of India
Date of Judgment: 24 March,2015
Bench: J. Chelameswar, Rohinton Fali Nariman
Law Points: Sec 66 A of Information technology, Act
Two women named Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan were arrested in 2012 in Mumbai when one of them posted a statement criticizing the bandh by Shiv Sena political party following Bala Saheb Thackray’s death and the other one liking the post on social media. They were arrested under Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000. The women were later released however it invoked wide protests and criticisms regarding the arrest.
Following these events, a petition under the public interest was filed pursuant to Article 32 of the Indian Constitution. It was seeking to make Section 66-A, Section 69A and Section 79 unconstitutional due to their vague and broad nature that could easily lead to misuse by the authorities. Several words such as irritation, disruptive, nuisance, risks were not explained in the IT Act or the General Clauses Act and were susceptible to misuse. The petitioner also argued that the clause made a distinction between regular citizens and people on the internet and thus when netizens make a comment that may be made by a citizen in general, they may be detained.
- Whether Section 66A of the IT Act violates the right to Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1) (a) or not?
- Whether Section 66A is protected in compliance with Article 19(2) or not?
- Whether Section 66A, 69A and 79 of the IT Act are constitutionally valid or not?
- Whether Article 14 and Article 21 are violated on the ground that there is no intelligible differentia or not?
- Section 66A violates the right to Freedom of Speech and expression and is not covered under Article 19(2).
- Section 66A is not protected in compliance with Article 19(2) since it doesn’t come under any of the 8 designated subject matters as specified.
- Section 66A, 69A and 79 violate the Right to freedom of speech and expression under article 19 and are vague and the terms are not defined properly and have a “chilling effect”
- There is no intelligible differentia between the people who use the internet as a medium of communication and those who use other modes of communication. (Spoken or written). Also, there are a number of terms in Section 66A which the act does not define and are vague. The people are left to the whims of the officials. Thus, the said section violates Article 14 and Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
- The judiciary cannot strike down just any law that legislation has put into place. The judiciary shall only intervene when there is a complete violation of Part III of the Constitution of India.
- Section 66A is well covered under the ambit of Article 19(2) and there must be reasonable restrictions in order to main peace and order in society.
- The court cannot strike down any provision of law just because of ambiguity or the terms not defined properly.
- The mere possibility that the Section is subject to abuse cannot be a ground to declare a provision invalid. The language can be to deal with new methods that can be used to disrupt peace and order through the internet. Further, vagueness is not a ground to declare a statute constitutionally invalid if it is otherwise rational and reasoned.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court deliberated upon 3 fundamental concepts in understanding the freedom of expression, i.e., discussion, advocacy, and incitement. According to the Court, “Mere discussion or even advocacy of a particular cause howsoever unpopular is at the heart of Article 19(1)(a). It is only when such discussion or advocacy reaches the level of persuasion that Article 19(2) dole out.” In the present case the Court found that Section 66A is capable of limiting all forms of internet communications as it makes no distinction “between mere discussion or advocacy of a particular point of view, which may be annoying or inconvenient or grossly offensive to some and incitement by which such words lead to a forthcoming causal connection with public disorder, the security of State etc.” Moreover, it said that this law does not form a clear proximate relation to the protection of public order and that under it an offence would be established once a message for causing annoyance or insult is sent. As a result, the law does not make the distinction between mass dissemination and dissemination to only one person without requiring the message to have a clear inclination of disrupting public order. Also, it held that Section 66A has the capacity of imposing a chilling effect on the Right to Freedom of Expression, stating “a very large amount of protected and innocent speech” could be diminished.
With respect to the issue of whether Section 66A protects individuals from online defamation, the Court observed that the main ingredient of defamation is “injury to reputation”, and that the law does not satisfy this ingredient because as it even condemns offensive statements that may affect reputation. The Court also held that the government failed to show that the law intends to prevent communications that incite the commission of an offence because “the mere causing of annoyance, inconvenience, danger etc., or being miserably offensive or having a browbeat character are not offences under the Indian Penal Code at all.”
The Court found that Section 66A is indeed vague in nature because, “where no reasonable standards are laid down to define guilt in a Section which creates an offence, and where no clear guidance is given to either law-abiding citizens or to authorities and courts, a Section which creates an offence and which is vague must be struck down as being arbitrary and unreasonable.”
The Court while rejecting the petitioner’s argument that Section 66A was in violation of Article 14, stated that there exists an intelligible difference between information transmitted through the internet and other forms of speech.