HM Journal

Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, (2015) 5 SCC 1

Shreya Singhal v Union of India (2015)[1] is a landmark case that has significant implications for the Indian judicial system. The case centres on the basic right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution[2], which was used to challenge the constitutionality of section 66 A of the IT Act[3]. The Supreme Court ruled that Section 66 A of the Information Technology Act of 2000, which regulates online speech limitations, is unconstitutional because it violates Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution.

Background:

The ambiguous and arbitrary words employed in Section 66A of the IT Act resulted in widespread exploitation of personal and political information, with numerous criminal cases being filed against seemingly harmless online expression, such as political criticism and comedy. In addition, a series of writ petitions before the Supreme Court, which were grouped together and heard by a bench consisting of Justices J. Chelameswar and R.F. Nariman, challenged Section 79 of the IT Act and the Rules made there under, which created an onerous liability regime for internet intermediaries.

Facts of the case:

Two ladies were detained for allegedly making rude and unpleasant remarks on Facebook questioning the morality of closing down Mumbai following the death of a prominent political leader. The arrests were made under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act of 2000 (ITA), which punishes anyone who sends grossly offensive information through a computer resource or communication device with the knowledge of its falsity for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, insult, injury, hatred, or ill will. Despite the fact that the detained ladies were eventually released and the criminal charges against them were closed, the arrests drew significant public outrage. It was thought that the police had abused their position by invoking Section 66A, claiming that it violated freedom of speech and expression, among other things.

Petitioners’ Contentions:

Following are the major contentions made by the petitioners:

  • Section 66A infringes on the basic right to freedom of expression and is unfettered by any of the eight reasonable restrictions under Article 19 (2)[4].
  • The implementation of the aforementioned clause would be a subtle kind of censorship, undermining a key value enshrined in Article 19(1) (a). Furthermore, the aforementioned section has a chilling impact on freedom of expression and speech. Also, viewers’ rights are violated since the chilling effect prevents them from seeing numerous shades of grey in terms of diverse points of view accessible on the internet.
  • That their rights under Articles 14 and 21 have been violated since there is no discernible difference between those who use the internet and those who communicate by words spoken or written. Punishing someone for using a specific mode of communication is discriminatory in and of itself, and would violate Article 14 in any event.
  • Since its intended protection against annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, damage, criminal intimidation, or ill-will falls outside the ambit of Article 19, Section 66A should be declared invalid.
  • That none of the aforementioned terms are even tried to be defined and cannot be specified, unlike the offence constituted by Section 66 of the same Act, Section 66A suffers from the vice of ambiguity. As a result, innocent people are also implicated. Such people are not notified which side of the line they fall in, and the police are free to be as arbitrary and whimsical as they like when booking them under the abovementioned clause. In reality, a huge number of people who are completely innocent have been arrested.

Respondent’s Contentions:

The Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta defended section 66A of the IT Act and made several submission:

  • Only when a legislation plainly violates the citizens’ rights under Part III of the Constitution can the Court intervene in the legislative process. There was a presumption in favour of an enactment’s constitutionality.
  • That the Constitution does not establish arbitrary criteria for assessing legitimacy. The mere potential of a provision being abused cannot be used to render a provision unlawful.
  • Section 66A may have utilised ambiguous terminology to deal with innovative techniques of infringing on other people’s rights by utilising the internet as a tool. Furthermore, if a legislation is otherwise legislatively competent and non-arbitrary, ambiguity is not a basis for declaring it unconstitutional.

Judgment:

The Court observed that the essential element of defamation is “damage to reputation” while deciding whether Section 66A was a genuine attempt to shield persons against defamatory remarks made through internet communications. It was determined that the legislation does not address this goal since it also prohibits offensive remarks that may bother or inconvenience an individual without harming his reputation. The Court found that Section 66A of the IT Act was a derogative provision to Article 19(1)(a), and therefore an arbitrary provision that infringes on citizens’ right to freedom of speech and expression on the internet. As a result, the clause in question was held unconstitutional and was, therefore, repealed in its entirety.

Judgement – Cyber Laws

Shreya Singhal v Union of India, 2015.

Edited By: Anamika Singh of NUSRL, Ranchi.


Decided on: 24th March 2015

Court:  Supreme Court of India

Judgment Authored by : Justice R.F. Nariman


[1] (2015) 5 SCC 1 : AIR 2015 SC 1523

[2]  INDIA CONST. art. 19, cl. 1.

[3] Section 66 A, IT Act 2000 available at: https://www.indiacode.nic.in/show-data?actid=AC_CEN_45_76_00001_200021_1517807324077&sectionId=13086&sectionno=66A&orderno=77 (last visited Aug 8, 2021)

[4]  INDIA CONST. art. 19, cl. 2

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