The government recently argued before the Supreme Court that Section 66A of the Information Technology Act should be interpreted on a case by case basis.
The Supreme Court had asked the government to explain what constituted “grossly offensive” under section 66 of the Act.
The government maintained that the provision was a necessary deterrent and could not be cast away on the apprehension that it would be misused to affect the freedom of speech and expression.
Section 66A defines the punishment for sending “offensive” messages through a computer or any other communication device like a mobile phone or a tablet. A conviction can fetch a maximum of three years in jail and a fine.
Controversy over Section 66A:
- The law came in for criticism after several arrests by police over Facebook and other social media postings.
- Two young women were arrested in Mumbai over a posting which the Shiv Sena found offensive.
- A lecturer was arrested in Kolkata for forwarding cartoons of chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
- A writer was arrested in UP for criticising the suspension of IAS officer DS Nagpal.
- In the wake of these incidents, many petitions were filed in SC challenging the law as being too vague, broad and arbitrary. SC in an interim order passed at the outset, restrained police from arresting anyone without clearing such action first with their superiors in such cases.
Arguments against the Law:
- The SC has received petitions demanding that the law either be aligned with Article 19(2) of the Constitution or be struck down.
- The opponents argue the I-T Act cannot prescribe restrictions on a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression that were wider than warranted under Article 19(2), which allows the state to curtail them only on the grounds of public order, security of state etc. Any other restriction on free speech on social media would be an unreasonable restriction under the Constitution.
Sources: The Hindu, PIB, IE.