HISTORY BEHIND LANDMARK CASE OF SHREYA SINGHAL VS UNION OF INDIA
‘Shreya Singhal v. Union of India’ AIR 2015 SC 1523 [Writ Petition (Criminal) No. 167 of 2012] is a landmark case that plays a very vital role in the Indian legal system. Shreya Singhal v Union of India revolves around the fundamental right of ‘Freedom of Speech and Expression enshrined under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India, which challenges the constitutional validity of section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000.
In Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, the Apex Court struck down section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 which provided provisions for the arrest of those who posted allegedly offensive content on social media or on the internet by upholding freedom of expression. The Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India also held that the Section was not saved by virtue of being a 'reasonable restriction' on the freedom of speech under Article 19(2).
Hence, Shreya Singhal v. Union of India is considered as a watershed moment for online free speech in India.
SECTION 66A OF IT ACT, 2000 AND RESTIRCTION OF FREE SPEECH
I. Section 66A had sparked debate since the day it was introduced as an amendment in 2008 to the original IT ACT, 2000 owing to its unconstitutionality. The 2008 Amendment allowed the government, the authority to detain and imprison someone for allegedly making "offensive and intimidating" internet posts.
II. P Rajeev, a Kerala-based Rajya Sabha member, attempted to move a resolution in December 2012 that sought to alter Section 66A. P Rajeev asserted that law was barely debated before being passed in December 2008.
III. Amitabh Thakur, an IPS officer, and his wife, Nutan Thakur, a social activist, filed a suit in November 2012 with the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, alleging that Section 66A infringed the right to free speech protected by Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution. They claimed the clause was ambiguous and regularly misapplied.
IV. In November 2012, Shreya Singhal, a law student from Delhi, also filed a Public Interest Litigation viz. Shreya Singhal vs Union of India with Apex Court claiming Section 66A violated Articles 14, 19 (1)(a), and 21 of the Indian Constitution.
V. Finally on March 24, 2015, the Apex court struck down Section 66A of IT Act, 2000, calling it “open-ended and unconstitutionally vague”, and thus expanded the contours of free speech to the Internet.
BRIEF FACTS OF SHREYA SINGHAL VS UNION OF INDIA
In the garb of Section 66A, two women named as Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan were detained by Mumbai police for reportedly posting inappropriate and disrespectful remarks on Facebook over the ‘bandh’ (shutting down of city of Mumbai) which was called in by the members of Shiv Sena Party in Maharashtra on the incident of Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackery’s death. While the 21-year-old Shaheen Dhada was arrested for posting a innocuous comment on her Facebook Profile, her college mate Renu Srinivasan crime was to ‘like’ Shaheen’s comment.
Despite the fact that the women were later released by the police and their charges were dropped, the incident received a lot of media attention and backlash. The women then submitted a petition, arguing that Section 66A is unconstitutional since it interferes with their freedom of expression.
The Apex Court of India first announced an interim remedy that forbade any arrest made in accordance with Section 66A unless the arrest was sanctioned by senior police authorities. With the case in hand, the Hon’ble Supreme Court thoroughly examined the legality of the clause in Shreya Singhal v Union of India.
ISSUES INVOLVED IN SHREYA SINGHAL V UNION OF INDIA
The primary issues involved in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India were:
1. Whether Section 66A of the Information Technology Act is constitutionally valid or not?
2. Whether Section 69A and the Rules are unconstitutional?
3. Whether Section 79(3) (b) and Information Technology “Intermediary Guidelines” Rules, 2011 is constitutionally valid or not?
A division bench of Justices J. Chelameswar and R.F. Nariman in ‘Shreya Singhal v Union of India’ ruled that Section 66A of IT Act, 2000 is unconstitutional for “being violative of Article 19(1)(a) and not saved under Article 19(2).” Article 19(1)(a) gives people the right to speech and expression whereas 19(2) accords the state the power to impose “reasonable restrictions” on the exercise of this right.
The court said: “Every expression used is nebulous in meaning. What may be offensive to one may not be offensive to another”. The court also held that blocking of information for public access given under Section 69A of IT Act is constitutionally valid in nature.
Speaking on behalf of the Court, Justice Nariman in Shreya Singhal v Union of India addressed the various factors that can be used to determine whether speech restrictions can be justified under Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution. Further, the Court held that the 'public order' restriction under Article 19(2) of the Constitution would not apply to cases of 'advocacy', but only to 'incitement', specifically incitement which has a proximate relation to public disorder.
REASONS FOR CRITICISIM OF SECTION 66A
• The issue was ambiguity about what was ‘offensive’.
• The word's broad connotation allowed for a wide range of interpretations. In Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, the petitioners argued that Section 66A came with extremely wide parameters, which allowed whimsical interpretations by law enforcement agencies.
• The term ‘offensive’ was viewed as subjective in nature. What would have been trivial for one individual could lead to a complaint from another and as a result lead to an arbitrary arrest.
While invalidating Section 66A in the case of Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, the Supreme Court not only gave a fresh lease on life to ‘Freedom of Speech & Expression’ in India, but while deciding this landmark case of ‘Shreya Singhal vs Union of India’ the Hon’ble Apex Court has also successfully discharged its responsibility of being a constitutional court for Indian citizens.
In Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, the Court has offered exceptional and enhanced clarity to free speech jurisprudence in India. Till today, the ruling in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India is regarded as a significant judicial rebuke of state intrusions on the right to free speech and expression.