If the law is open to diverse construction, that construction which accords best with the intention of the legislature and advances the purpose of legislation, is to be preferred. Where however the law admits of no such construction and the persons applying it are in a boundless sea of uncertainty and the law prima facie takes away a guaranteed freedom, the law must be held to offend the Constitution


CASE BRIEF: Shreya Singhal vs U.O.I


CASE NAME: Shreya Singhal vs U.O.I

CITATION: WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.167 OF 2012

COURT: Supreme Court of India

BENCH: J. Chelameswar

Rohinton Fali Nariman, J

DECIDED ON: 24 March, 2015

RELEVENT STATUTES: The Constitution of India

The Information Technology Act of 2000

The Indian Penal code, 1860

The Indian Evidence Act,1872

The code of Criminal Procedure,1973


BRIEF FACTS & PROCEDURAL HISTORY:

1. Police arrested two women for posting allegedly offensive and objectionable comments on Facebook about the propriety of shutting down the city of Mumbai after the death of a political leader. The police made the arrests under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act of 2000 (ITA), which punishes any person who sends through a computer resource or communication device any information that is grossly offensive, or with the knowledge of its falsity, the information is transmitted for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, insult, injury, hatred, or ill will.

2. Although the police later released the women and dismissed their prosecution, the incident invoked substantial media attention and criticism. The women then filed a petition, challenging the constitutional validity of Section 66A on the ground that it violates the right to freedom of expression.

3. The petitioners' various counsel raised a large number of points as to the constitutionality of Section 66A. According to them, first and foremost Section 66A infringes the fundamental right to free speech and expression and is not saved by any of the eight subjects covered in Article 19(2). According to them, the causing of annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill- will are all outside the purview of Article 19(2).

4. Further, in creating an offence, Section 66A suffers from the vice of vagueness because unlike the offence created by Section 66 of the same Act, none of the aforesaid terms are even attempted to be defined and cannot be defined, the result being that innocent persons are roped in as well as those who are not. Such persons are not told clearly on which side of the line they fall; and it would be open to the authorities to be as arbitrary and whimsical as they like in booking such persons under the said Section. In fact, a large number of innocent persons have been booked and many instances have been given in the form of a note to the Court. The enforcement of the said Section would really be an insidious form of censorship which impairs a core value contained in Article 19(1)(a).

5.  In addition, the said Section has a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression. Also, the right of viewers is infringed as such chilling effect would not give them the benefit of many shades of grey in terms of various points of view that could be viewed over the internet. The petitioners also contend that their rights under Articles 14 and 21 are breached inasmuch there is no intelligible differentia between those who use the internet and those who by words spoken or written use other mediums of communication. To punish somebody because he uses a particular medium of communication is itself a discriminatory object and would fall foul of Article 14 in any case.


ISSUES:

1. Challenging the constitutional validity of Section 66A on the ground that it violates the right to freedom of expression ?


RATIO OF THE COURT:

1. The court observed that the Information of all kinds is roped in - such information may have scientific, literary or artistic value, it may refer to current events, it may be obscene or seditious. It is clear that the right of the people to know - the market place of ideas - which the internet provides to persons of all kinds is what attracts Section 66A. That the information sent has to be annoying, inconvenient, grossly offensive etc., also shows that no distinction is made between mere discussion or advocacy of a particular point of view which may be annoying or inconvenient or grossly offensive to some and incitement by which such words lead to an imminent causal connection with public disorder, security of State etc.

2. The court held that The petitioners are right in saying that Section 66A in creating an offence against persons who use the internet and annoy or cause inconvenience to others very clearly affects the freedom of speech and expression of the citizenry of India at large in that such speech or expression is directly curbed by the creation of the offence contained in Section 66A.

3. In Sakal Papers (P) Ltd. & Ors. v. Union of India, [1962] 3 S.C.R. 842, this Court said: "the right of freedom of speech cannot be taken away with the object of placing restrictions on the business activities of a citizen. A citizen is entitled to enjoy each and every one of the freedoms together and clause (1) does not prefer one freedom to another. That is the plain meaning of this clause. It follows from this that the State cannot make a law which directly restricts one freedom even for securing the better enjoyment of another freedom. "

4. The court Going by this test observed it is clear that Section 66A is intended to punish any person who uses the internet to disseminate any information that falls within the sub-clauses of Section 66A. It will be immediately noticed that the recipient of the written word that is sent by the person who is accused of the offence is not of any importance so far as this Section is concerned. (Save and except where under sub-clause (c) the addressee or recipient is deceived or misled about the origin of a particular message.) It is clear, therefore, that the information that is disseminated may be to one individual or several individuals.

5. The Section makes no distinction between mass dissemination and dissemination to one person. The nexus between the message and action that may be taken based on the message is conspicuously absent - there is no ingredient in this offence of inciting anybody to do anything which a reasonable man would then say would have the tendency of being an immediate threat to public safety or tranquility. On all these counts, it is clear that the Section has no proximate relationship to public order whatsoever.

6. Equally, Section 66A has no proximate connection with incitement to commit an offence. As Section 66A severely curtails information that may be sent on the internet based on whether it is grossly offensive, annoying, inconvenient, etc. and being unrelated to any of the eight subject matters under Article 19(2) must, therefore, fall foul of Article 19(1)(a), and not being saved under Article 19(2), is declared as unconstitutional.

7. In a recent judgment of this Court, Aveek Sarkar v. State of West Bengal, 2014 (4) SCC 257, this Court referred to English, U.S. and Canadian judgments and moved away from the Hicklin test and applied the contemporary community standards test.  What has been said with regard to public order and incitement to an offence equally applies here. Section 66A cannot possibly be said to create an offence which falls within the expression 'decency' or 'morality' in that what may be grossly offensive or annoying under the Section need not be obscene at all - in fact the word 'obscene' is conspicuous by its absence in Section 66A.

8.  The court observed that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held in a series of judgments that where no reasonable standards are laid down to define guilt in a Section which creates an offence, and where no clear guidance is given to either law abiding citizens or to authorities and courts, a Section which creates an offence and which is vague must be struck down as being arbitrary and unreasonable.

9. The court stated that it is quite clear that the expressions used in 66A are completely open-ended and undefined.

10.  Quite apart from this, as has been pointed out above, every expression used is nebulous in meaning. What may be offensive to one may not be offensive to another. What may cause annoyance or inconvenience to one may not cause annoyance or inconvenience to another. Even the expression "persistently" is completely imprecise - suppose a message is sent thrice, can it be said that it was sent "persistently"? Does a message have to be sent (say) at least eight times, before it can be said that such message is "persistently" sent? There is no demarcating line conveyed by any of these expressions - and that is what renders the Section unconstitutionally vague.

11. Ultimately, applying the tests referred to in Chintaman Rao and V.G. Row's case, referred to earlier in the judgment, it is clear that Section 66A arbitrarily, excessively and disproportionately invades the right of free speech and upsets the balance between such right and the reasonable restrictions that may be imposed on such right.

12. Information that may be grossly offensive or which causes annoyance or inconvenience are undefined terms which take into the net a very large amount of protected and innocent speech. A person may discuss or even advocate by means of writing disseminated over the internet information that may be a view or point of view pertaining to governmental, literary, scientific or other matters which may be unpalatable to certain sections of society. It is obvious that an expression of a view on any matter may cause annoyance, inconvenience or may be grossly offensive to some. A few examples will suffice.

13. The court held that A certain section of a particular community may be grossly offended or annoyed by communications over the internet by "liberal views" - such as the emancipation of women or the abolition of the caste system or whether certain members of a non proselytizing religion should be allowed to bring persons within their fold who are otherwise outside the fold. Each one of these things may be grossly offensive, annoying, inconvenient, insulting or injurious to large sections of particular communities and would fall within the net cast by Section 66A. In point of fact, Section 66A is cast so widely that virtually any opinion on any subject would be covered by it, as any serious opinion dissenting with the mores of the day would be caught within its net. Such is the reach of the Section and if it is to withstand the test of constitutionality, the chilling effect on free speech would be total.

14. The court finally held that the Section is unconstitutional also on the ground that it takes within its sweep protected speech and speech that is innocent in nature and is liable therefore to be used in such a way as to have a chilling effect on free speech and would, therefore, have to be struck down on the ground of overbreadth.

15. The present is a case where, as has been held above, Section 66A does not fall within any of the subject matters contained in Article 19(2) and the possibility of its being applied for purposes outside those subject matters is clear. We therefore hold that no part of Section 66A is severable and the provision as a whole must be declared unconstitutional.

16. Counsel for the petitioners have argued that Article 14 is also infringed in that an offence whose ingredients are vague in nature is arbitrary and unreasonable and would result in arbitrary and discriminatory application of the criminal law. Further, there is no intelligible differentia between the medium of print, broadcast, and real live speech as opposed to speech on the internet.

17. When we come to discrimination under Article 14, the court didn’t agree with counsel for the petitioners that there is no intelligible differentia between the medium of print, broadcast and real live speech as opposed to speech on the internet. The intelligible differentia is clear - the internet gives any individual a platform which requires very little or no payment through which to air his views.

18. The learned Additional Solicitor General correctly said that something posted on a site or website travels like lightning and can reach millions of persons all over the world. If the petitioners were right, this Article 14 argument would apply equally to all other offences created by the Information Technology Act which are not the subject matter of challenge in these petitions.

19. Therefore, there is an intelligible differentia between speech on the internet and other mediums of communication for which separate offences can certainly be created by legislation. The court held, therefore, that the challenge on the ground of Article 14 must fail.


DECISION HELD:

The court held the following:

1. Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 is struck down in its entirety being violative of Article 19(1)(a) and not saved under Article 19(2).

2. Section 69A and the Information Technology (Procedure & Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules 2009 are constitutionally valid.

3. Section 79 is valid subject to Section 79(3)(b) being read down to mean that an intermediary upon receiving actual knowledge from a court order or on being notified by the appropriate government or its agency that unlawful acts relatable to Article 19(2) are going to be committed then fails to expeditiously remove or disable access to such material. Similarly, the Information Technology

4. "Intermediary Guidelines" Rules, 2011 are valid subject to Rule 3 sub-rule (4) being read down in the same manner as indicated in the judgment.

5. All the writ petitions are disposed in the above terms.

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