The Government yesterday informed a two-Judge Bench comprising of Justice Chelameswar and Justice R.F. Nariman that Section 66A of the Information Technology Act would not be used to stifle political dissent, humor that wasn't vulgar and contrarian views.
The Bench is re-hearing the petitions challenging the law. At the outset, Additional Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta dismissed the apprehensions that the law, if allowed to stand in the statute book in its current form, would be misused to suppress political dissent and humor.
The Court is hearing petitions demanding allying of the law with Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution or striking it down.
Several Petitions were filed in the Court, after several arrests by police over Facebook and other social media postings. The string of incidents included an arrest of two young women in Mumbai for a posting which was found offensive by the Shiv Sena, the arrest of a writer in UP criticising the suspension of IAS officer D.S. Nagpal and the arrest of a lecturer in Kolkata for forwarding cartoons of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
These Petitions had asserted that the law was too vague, broad and arbitrary. Hence, as an interim order, the Apex Court had restrained police from arresting anyone without clearing such action first with their superiors in such cases.
Representing the NGO, Common Cause, Prashant Bhushan argued that Section 66A creates several new offences based on whether anyone would be annoyed or feel inconvenienced by a social media posting. He hence contended that the offences covered under the Information Technology Act, already exist in the IPC and are very concisely defined. "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.
Mr. Bhushan urged the Court to strike down Section 66A as vagueness in criminal law has a potential to invalidate, firstly because it deprives the citizen of any notice regarding the conduct it prohibits and secondly because it would promote arbitrary enforcement. "Mere intolerance or animosity cannot be the basis for abridgement of constitutional freedom (to free speech)," he added. Such a conduct would hence, have a “chilling” effect on political discourse.
The Court had earlier granted a week to Centre to clear its stand on Section 66A and 74 of the Information Technology Act which are often called up by authorities to gag free speech on social media, warning a stay on the operation of provisions. Read the LiveLaw story here.