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Sunday, Oct 02, 2022

#VictoryForFreedom

In felling Section 66A, SC reaffirms its role as guardian of individual liberty against state whimsy, arbitrariness.

A cartoonist, a university professor, two young women, a businessman, a writer and a couple of Air India employees — they were victims, all, of Section 66A of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008, which the Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional. In an eloquent and far-reaching judgment, the court emphasised that the “liberty of thought and expression” is a “cardinal value” of “paramount significance” in any democracy. It affirmed the role of unpopular opinions in a “culture of open dialogue” and in the “marketplace of ideas”, pointing out that “what may be offensive to one may not be offensive to another”. It criticised Section 66A as vague and “nebulous in meaning” and acknowledged the ways in which the provision has been misused and wielded as a weapon against those who took to social media to express political dissent. It dismissed the Central government’s assurance that it would be less whimsical in the way in which it employed the section, noting that “governments may come and governments may go, but Section 66A goes on forever.”

Once again, India’s apex court has reaffirmed its role as the guardian of individual liberty against arbitrary and whimsical state action, and as protector particularly of that most fundamental of rights — of free speech and expression. It was the Supreme Court that read the freedom of the press into Article 19(1) of the Constitution. Now, by pointing out that Section 66A fails the “reasonableness” test for restrictions permitted under Article 19(2) of the Constitution, by making crucial distinctions — such as between discussion, advocacy and incitement — and by requiring that any restriction imposed by the state be defined precisely to ensure that ambiguity does not chill free speech, the court upholds a fine tradition.

Section 66A is a telling example of legislation shoddily drafted and passed without debate, essentially to serve the powerful. Its flaws were evident from the time it became law after the amendment bill to the IT Act was hurriedly passed by Parliament in the tense aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai 2008. But it served as a convenient weapon in the hands of thin-skinned politicians and overreaching policemen. If the UPA, in government, championed its necessity, the BJP, a strident critic of the law when in opposition, executed a disappointing u-turn upon assuming power. Given this collusion among political parties, only the judiciary could have stepped in to challenge its arbitrariness. And once again, the apex court has come through for the people.

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First published on: 25-03-2015 at 12:00:10 am
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Supreme Court takes freedom of speech to the Net by striking down much abused Section 66A

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