• Slide 1

    SC's Landmark Decision to Protect Online Freedom of Speech

SC's Landmark Decision to Protect Online Freedom of Speech

10 March 2017


Before 2015, no sane person would have thought that the knees of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 would go weak and that too against one of the most powerful persons of Maharashtra. In March 2015, Supreme Court of India struck down Sec. 66A which restricted the freedom of speech and expression under Art. 19(1)(a) while upholding the people’s right to know.


How it all began

In 2012, two girls allegedly posted some negative comments against the total shutdown in Mumbai in pursuance to the death of Shiv Sena leader the late Bal Thackeray. After their arrest, a Bristol University astrophysics graduate, Shreya Singhal, filed a PIL before the Supreme Court of India where she challenged the undue restrictions on online speech which had been acknowledged under Sec. 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

Section 66A reads as follows: “Any person who sends by any means of a computer resource-

a)      any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character; or

b)      any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.”


Contentions of the Parties to the Case

Section 66A was not originally enacted with the statute of 2000 but inserted by way of 2009 amendment. The petitioner’s contention circled around the fact that restrictions under Sec. 66A are in clear violation of the right to free speech and expression enshrined under Art. 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Causing of annoyance, hatred, danger, obstruction, insult, ill-will, insult, criminal intimidation, injury, inconvenience are not hit by the conditions of Art. 19(2). The public has the right to know various kinds of views on a particular topic. However, it was countered by the respondents with the contention that the legislature is in the best position to understand and cater to the needs of the people.


The Judgment

The Apex Court placed focus upon what is the content of “freedom of speech and expression”. It stated three concepts in this regard – first is discussion, second is advocacy and third is incitement. Discussion and advocacy forms the core of Art 19(1)(a) but when it effects incitement, Art. 19(2) comes into play. However, what may be offensive to one may not be to other. It observed that the whole discussion centered around public disorder and ‘reasonable restrictions’ can be interpreted on the lines of Chintaman Rao v. State of Madhya Pradesh, [1950] S.C.R. 759, Mohd. Faruk v. State of Madhya Pradesh & Ors., [1970] 1 S.C.R. 156. It also stated that written words causing inconvenience, danger, annoyance, etc. does not count as an offence itself and are vague and overbroad. The court further observed that it is bound by the law laid down in Ram Manohar Lohia’s case [1960] 2 S.C.R. 821 and held that “Section 66A is unconstitutional also on the ground that it takes within its sweep protected speech and speech that is innocent in nature and is liable therefore to be used in such a way as to have a chilling effect on free speech and would, therefore, have to be struck down on the ground of overbreadth.” The bench of Justice J Chelameswar and Justice Rohinton F Nariman further supplemented their findings by stating that government’s assurance to prevent misuse of the provision will not matter as governments come and go.

Surprisingly, a data released by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2015 showed that 2,402 people were arrested under Sec. 66A in 2014.

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