The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, a controversial provision used to arrest people for their social media postings. The verdict was hailed by the victims, who described it as a victory for the common man’s free speech. Also Read - WhatsApp Privacy Update: WhatsApp asked by SC reasons for lower standards of privacy for Indians
“Section 66A of the IT Act is struck down in its entirety…,” said an apex court bench of Justice J. Chelameswar and Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman. Also Read - Vodafone Idea prepaid and postpaid plans to cost more
The provision was so vaguely worded that any one could be arrested for “annoying and offensive” postings on a complaint even by a single individual. Also Read - WhatsApp not authorized to go live with UPI full scale operations, RBI tells Supreme Court
“Our Constitution provides for liberty of thought, expression and belief. In a democracy, these values have to be provided within constitutional scheme. The law (Section 66A) is vague in its entirety,” said Justice Nariman pronouncing the judgment.
“There is no nexus between public order and discussion or causing annoyance by dissemination of information. Curbs under Section 66A of the IT Act infringes on the public right to know.”
Minister for Information and Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad said the government did not favour gagging dissent or honest criticism expressed on social media.
“We respect communication of ideas on social media, not in favour of curtailing honest criticism, dissent on social media,” he told the media.
Victims on Tuesday hailed the Supreme Court’s verdict.
Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra, who was arrested under the section in 2012 for circulating emails mocking West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, told IANS: “This is a victory of the common man’s freedom of speech.”
“This verdict will surely remove the fear psychosis that has been developing among a large section of internet users that they may get arrested for even innocuous of acts.”
The issue was trending on Twitter and users hailed the judgement.
Author Chetan Bhagat tweeted: “Glad to know that I live in a free country. No section 66A as SC strikes it down. Super Happy. Go on, troll away.”
Having struck down the Section 66A of the IT Act, the court however upheld the other sections of IT Act which provides for blocking of such contents under the court or government orders.
“Government may come, government may go but 66A will remain on the statute,” the court said, adding that “we cannot go by government assurance that law will not be misused.”
Having read down Section 66A, the court also struck down the Section 118(d) of the Kerala Police Act.
The apex court order came on a batch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of 66A of the IT Act on the grounds that it was vague and ambiguous and was being misused by the law enforcing authorities.
The court was moved in 2012 following the arrest of two young women — Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Shrinivasan — for posting comments critical of the Mumbai shutdown following the death of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray.
The hearing saw NGOs Common Cause, People Union for Civil Liberty and individuals including self-exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen joining the challenge which saw a repeat hearing after an earlier hearing by a bench of Justice J. Chelameswar and Justice S.A. Bobde remained inconclusive.
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.”
The central government defended section 66A, taking the stand that the provisions in no way intended to curb the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under article 19 of the Constitution. At the same time, it said the enormous cyber world could not be left unregulated.
Mohammed Farooq Dhada, father of Shaheen Dhada, whose Facebook post had created a nationwide stir in 2012, said the credit for the Supreme Court verdict “must go to my daughter”.
A pleased Dhada said: “I never scolded her for (the post) and supported her always as she had done nothing wrong. We are happy by the verdict.”
Shaheen became a national celebrity after her Facebook post questioned a spontaneous shutdown in Maharasthra, at the funeral of the late Shiv Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray on November 19, 2012 and her friend Renu Srinivasan ‘liked’ it.
Renu’s father said: “I was shocked by their arrest then. They had done nothing wrong.”
A happy and relieved Renu said: “I shall continue to speak out my mind through social media networks.”
Cartoonist and free speech activist Aseem Trivedi, who too was booked under the law in 2012, told IANS: “This is a landmark judgement against a very evil law that has been widely misused by political parties and the administration to curb freedom of speech.”
The cartoonist was arrested in 2012 allegedly poking fun at Parliament and the national emblem by drawing cartoons which were circulated at Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption rally in Mumbai in 2011.
“There have been countless people who have fallen victim to this draconian law, perhaps this is a victory for all those,” added Trivedi who was recently absolved of sedition charges by a Mumbai court.