Extreme political views not prohibited in cyber world: Government told SC
NEW DELHI: The government on Wednesday held out the promise that Section 66A of the Information Technology Act would not be used to stifle political dissent, humour that wasn’t vulgar and contrarian views, before a Supreme Courtbench that’s re-hearing a batch of petitions challenging the legality of the law which confers wide powers of arrest on the police.
A two-judge bench comprising justices Jasti Chelameswar and RF Nariman is re-hearing the case after one of the earlier judges was assigned to another bench. At the start, additional solicitor general Tushar Mehtadispelled fears that the law, if allowed to stand in the statute book in its current form, would be misused to suppress political dissent and humour.
He was defending the legality of the law that came in for criticism after several arrests by police over Facebook and other social media postings. Two young women were arrested in Mumbai over a posting which the Shiv Sena found offensive. A lecturer was arrested in Kolkata for forwarding cartoons of chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
A writer was arrested in UP for criticising the suspension of IAS officer DS Nagpal. In the wake of these incidents, Many petitions were filed in SC challenging the law as being too vague, broad and arbitrary. SC in an interim order passed at the outset, restrained police from arresting anyone without clearing such action first with their superiors in such cases.
Now the court is hearing the petitions demanding that the law either be aligned with Article 19(2) of the Constitution or be struck down. The opponents argue the I-T Act cannot prescribe restrictions on a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression that were wider than warranted under Article 19(2), which allows the state to curtail them only on the grounds of public order, security of state etc.
Any other restriction on free speech on social media would be an unreasonable restriction under the Constitution, lawyer for NGO Common Cause Prashant Bhushan argued. Bhushan said Section 66A creates several new offences based on whether anyone would be annoyed or feel inconvenienced by a social media posting. No criminal intent is required to make such a posting an offence, he contended.
All the offences, ostensibly covered by the I-T Act, already exist in the IPC and are very concisely defined, he said. “Every person is entitled to be informed as to what the state commands or forbids and that the life and liberty of a person cannot be put in peril on an ambiguity,” he said, quoting from SC’s earlier ruling in the Maneka Gandhi case.
Vagueness in a criminal law would invalidate it, he argued, for two reasons — first, it does not put the citizen on notice as to what conduct it prohibits, and second it may encourage arbitrary enforcement. Bhushan urged SC to strike down Section 66A as “void” because it makes any conduct, which hurts a complainant’s sensitivity, an offence.
This would have a “chilling” effect on political discourse, if the right to cause annoyance to “corrupt” public servants and create “disaffection” against the government and its policies in public interest, unless it amounted to inciting violence, were to be curtailed, he said. “Mere intolerance or animosity cannot be the basis for abridgement of constitutional freedom (to free speech),” he said.