March 25, 2015

Supreme Court strikes down #66A of IT Act: a fact sheet

ITB was waiting with bated breath whether India's Supreme Court strikes down Section 66A of IT Act, 2000. Chances were that it would, and it really did. We are not only relieved, we are rejoicing along with millions of Indians, especially the people active on social media and those who think freedom of speech is essential in a democracy.

In the present post, we bring you some facts verbatim so that you don't have to depend on what newspapers or channels report according to the understanding of their reporters and debaters, and their editorial line.

What is the #66A court case, 'Shreya Singhal vs Union of India'? 

This is a writ petition filed under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution. Under this article, an aggrieved person can directly approach the supreme Court or High Courts against infringement of his/ her fundamental rights. The main petition is by Ms. Shreya Singhal and with this, a number of appeals made by others have been clubbed. Petitioners have challenged provisions of some laws that are supposed to go against citizens' freedom of speech and expression granted by Article 19 of the Constitution. 

Does the court verdict scrap IT Act? 

The Supreme Court has struck down Section 66A (while upholding some other sections) of the IT Act, and other acts in question. The judgement is a lengthy one, with 119 paras. The last, summing up, para is given here.

This Section 66A was struck down as it came in conflict with Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(2) of the Indian Constitution. 

What do these Articles say? 

Art. 19(1)(a) is one of the freedoms granted under the Constitution, i.e. freedom of speech and expression:

19. Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech etc
(1) All citizens shall have the right
(a) to freedom of speech and expression;

Art. 19(2) saves a law from Art. 19(1) when the law is enacted for integrity of India, decency, etc:

section-66A(2) Nothing in sub clause (a) of clause ( 1 ) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

Exactly what was there in Section #66A? 

This Section allowed the police to imprison any person who, in its opinion, sent offensive, menacing, annoying, insulting or similar information through a mobile or IT device. The text of this Section is given here.

This section was inserted into the IT Act in 2009. (It was not there in the original Act.)

Can I now post on the web whatever I want?

A person can still be tried under various provisions of Indian laws. However, the authorities cannot impose 'unreasonable' restrictions on freedom of speech and expression using legal provisions that took cover under Article 19(2).

What is government reaction to the judgement?

The government is yet to come out with a considered response. In a hurriedly called press conference, Minister for IT, Ravi Shankar Prasad, has said that the government supports the judgement; in fact, it had given an affidavit to the court calling for stringent guidelines to curb misuse of the Act.