Supreme Court strikes down Section 66A of IT Act which allowed The Supreme Court has scrapped a contentious law that was seen as a major infringement of the freedom of speech online because it allowed the arrest of a person for posting offensive content. Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, introduced in 2000, has been declared unconstitutional. Describing the law as “vague in its entirety,” the judges said, it encroaches upon “the public’s right to know.”
What is Section 66A :
Section 66A reads: “Any person who sends by any means of a computer resource any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character; or 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.”
Section 66A violates Article 19(1)(a) of Constitution
The SC said Section 66A of the Information Technology Act was violative of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and expression.
Sec 66A – Arrests for Objectionable Content Online
The bench of Justice J. Chelameswar and Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman has pronounced the verdict which was reserved on February 26, upon the conclusion of the arguments by the petitioners and the central government. Justice Nariman would pronounce the verdict for the bench.
The challenge commenced with Shreya Singhal challenging the constitutional validity of the section, following the arrest of two girls – Shaheen Dhanda and Rinu Shrinivasan – for posting comments critical of the Mumbai bandh in the wake of the death of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray.
The law had been challenged first by a law student named Shreya Singhal after two young women were arrested in 2012 for posting comments critical of the total shutdown in Mumbai after the death of Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena chief. The group that challenged the law in the Supreme Court expanded to include the NGO Common Cause and Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen.
“Nobody should have fear of putting up something because of the fear of going to prison,” said Ms Singhal, adding that hate speech will be dealt with under other laws that govern the Internet.
The contention by most of the petitioners was that Section 66A is vague and allows the police arbitrary interpretation and misuse of the law. The previous government, headed by the Congress, said that the law was necessary to combat abuse and defamation on the internet. The new BJP government also defended the law in court.
Critics of the law said it was misused by political parties to target their opponents and dissidence. A professor in West Bengal was arrested in 2012 for posting a cartoon of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, for example.
Father of a ‘victim’ of the Act Farooq Dhada says 66 A should be abrogated as it was being misused and several people had fallen prey to this section.
Quoting from the preamble to the Indian Constitution, the judgment emphasises the “paramount significance” of the “cardinal value” of the liberty of thought, expression and belief. The apex court held that Section 66A is “clearly vague” with every expression used in it being “nebulous in meaning”.
In their order, the court said, Section 66A is violative of Article 19(1)(a), not saved by Article 19(2), hence unconstitutional. The Court said there is a difference between discussion, advocacy and incitement.Discussion & advocacy, no matter how annoying, is allowed said the division bench in it’s judgment.
What does section 66A of the IT act actually say?
“Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,
(a) any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or
(b) any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device,
(c) any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.”