The Delhi Legislative Assembly has informed the Supreme Court that Facebook's India Chief, Ajit Mohan, has merely been summoned by its "Peace and Harmony Committee" to give his expert deposition in its inquiry against the Company's alleged failure to track down hate-speech.
It is emphasized that its proceedings are not criminal or judicial in nature, and neither is Mr. Mohan an "accused" and therefore, he cannot assert the right to remain silent.
"A witness cannot claim his right to silence or to be let alone in response to the summons to depose before a lawful Committee of an empowered legislature, and such a right is not a fundamental except when the person is an accused under Article 20 of the Constitution," the Delhi Assembly asserted.
It further assured,
"No coercive action has been taken against the Petitioner No. 1 and none was intended if the Petitioner No. 1 merely attended and participated in the proceedings as a witness. It is also important to note that the proceedings are being conducted in most transparent manner with live broadcast and therefore there is no question of any apprehension in respect of the proceeding either by the Petitioner No. 1 or anyone else."
The submission comes in the form of a counter affidavit filed by the Assembly in Mohan's plea challenging the summons issued to him by the Delhi Assembly's "Peace and Harmony" Committee, which is looking into complaints on the "role or complicity of Facebook officials in the Delhi riots" that took place in February 2020.
Facebook India Vice President Moves Supreme Court Against Summons Issued By Delhi Assembly Committee Looking Into Delhi Riots
In his plea, Mohan had stated that this issue falls within the exclusive domain of the Union of India and that the Committee improperly seeks to exercise its powers and privileges in a manner that exceeds the constitutional limits of the Legislative Assembly.
Refuting this claim, the Assembly submitted that the scope of the Committee's work is purely recommendatory including making positive recommendations to ensure peace and harmony in Delhi, "which relates to various heads/entries of competence of the Assembly in List II and List III of the Seventh Schedule."
Reliance is placed on Entry 39 of List II that reads "Powers, privileges and immunities of the Legislative Assembly and of the members and committees thereof…;enforcement of attendance of persons for giving evidence or producing documents before committees of the Legislature of the State" and Entry 45 of List III that reads 9 "Inquiries and Statistics for the purposes of any of the matters specified in List II or List III".
Further it is submitted,
"The proceedings of the Assembly cannot be called in question in the Court of Law and the Member or the Presiding Officer in whom powers are vested for regulating the procedure or conduct of business is not subject to the jurisdiction of Courts in respect of exercise by him of those powers [Section 37 of the GNCTD Act, 1991]."
Significantly, the Supreme Court had issued notices on Mohan's plea last month, where he sought clarification as to whether the privileges of the Legislative Assembly of Delhi, include the power to compel the appearance of non-members before it to express their views or subject them to examination?
Responding to this question, the Assembly has claimed that it is an "inherent right" of the Legislature to examine matters of "public importance" and for that purpose to require the presence of persons who are performing a duty of public importance or who have expertise in the matter, before the Committee.
It further pointed out that Mr. Mohan had already deposed before the Parliament on some other issues and employees/ representatives of Facebook regularly depose before legislatures across the world and thus, the issue raised by him that non-members cannot be mandated to appear before Committees of Legislatures is not genuine or bonafide.
"The Petitioner No.1's assertion that his being called to depose will have a chilling effect on the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression is not bonafide, misplaced and frivolous. It is reprehensible to raise such an argument especially given that the Petitioners appeared before the Standing Committee on Information Technology of Parliament on being called to give evidence exercise similar powers as the Respondent No.1," the Assembly averred.
It is further contended that a mere issue of summons does not in any manner violate the Fundamental Rights of the Petitioner under Article 14 or Article 21 of the Constitution and therefore, a Writ Petition under Article 32 does is not maintainable.