`SECTION 66A OF IT ACT IS AMBIGUOUS & PRONE TO MISUSE’
In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court on Tuesday fortified the right to freedom of speech and liberty by striking down as `unconstitutional’ Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which police had used indiscriminately to arrest persons for posting criticism of government and political leaders.
“Section 66A is so widely cast 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,“ the court said.
Justices J Chelameswar and R F Nariman said the law was ambiguously worded, prone to misuse and, therefore, stretches far beyond the “reasonable restrictions“ criterion laid down under Article 19( 2) of the Constitution. They brushed aside the government’s promise not to misuse the law saying that what is unconstitutional should not be on the statute book at all.
However, despite the SC judgment, citizens still need to be careful while posting comments on websites and social network sites as provisions similar to Section 66A exist in IPC’s Sections 153 and 505. But the verdict from a bench of justices Chelameswar and Nariman could act as a deterrent against arrest. Heralding a red-letter day for internet users and social network site frequenters, the bench said Section 66A was vaguely worded, making it prone to misuse by police.
Referring to as many as 20 judgments of the US supreme court, the bench also said re striction on free speech by Section 66A, brought into force by the UPA government in 2009 by amending the IT Act and defended in the apex court by the NDA government, far exceeded“ reasonable restrictions “provided under Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
Writing the 123-page judgment, Justice Nariman said: “Section 66A purports to authorize the imposition of restrictions on the fundamental right contained in Article 19(1)(a) [guaranteeing right to freedom of speech and expression] in language wide enough to cover restriction both within and without limits of constitutionally permissible legislative action.“ The court also struck down Section 118 of the Kerala Police Act, which was similar to Section 66A.
Justice R F Nariman said: “It cannot be over-emphasized that when it comes to democracy, liberty of thought and expression is a cardinal value…of paramount significance under our constitutional scheme.“
The SC refused to buy the NDA government’s assurance that it would exercise restraint in invoking Section 66A. The bench said when the provision was unconstitutional, it could not be allowed to stay on the statute book. “If Section 66A is otherwise invalid, it cannot be saved by an assurance from the additional solicitor general that it will be administered in a reasonable manner. Governments may come and governments may go, but Section 66A goes on forever. An assurance from the present government, even if carried out faithfully , would not bind any successor government,“ the court said.
Law student Shreya Singhal had moved the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of Section 66A after two girls in Maharashtra were arrested in the dead of the night for their posts on a social network site criticizing the Maharashtra bandh called by Shiva Sena the day Bal Thackeray was cremated.
Source : Times of India