SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
By Brigadier Chitranjan Sawant,VSM
The division bench of the Supreme Court of India delivered a historic judgement on 24 March 2015 striking down section 66A of the RTI Act 2000,as amended in 2008. Shreya, a law student had filed a Public Interest Litigation in the year 20012 challenging the said Act when two girls of Maharashtra were taken to task for writing their opinion on the social media criticizing the Mumbai Bandh on demise of Bala Saheb Thackeray. Shaheen had written the offensive material and her friend had Liked it and both had thus infringed the section 66A of the said Act by uploading offensive material on the social media.
The last straw on camel’s back was the notorious case of Rampur, UP when the Police egged by Azam Khan, a Socialist leader had put a class eleven student behind bars for uploading and sharing offensive material on the social media. Of course, the boy was released on bail later but damage was done and the case cited as an abuse of provision of law.
Besides Shreya’s PIL, many more similar petitions by citizens were filed in the Supreme Court bringing to the notice of the Apex Court gross abuse of provisions of law. It was pointed out by the numerous petitioners that the Constitutional right of Freedom of Thought and Expression was jeopardized by the offending section of the RTI Act. It was pointed out that the amendment to the original Act passed by the Parliament in 2009, known as Section 66A, was so loosely worded and bordered ambiguity that it was liable to be misused by the Police and the Administration. In fact many cases of misuse like that of the UP and Maharashtra were cited.
Arguments were put forward by learned counsels of petitioners that the offending provision of the amended section was jeopardizing the Constitutional protection granted to the Right of Freedom of Thought and Expression enshrined in Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India. The learned Counsels for the Government of India said that the Cyber domain was so widely spread that restraint on its misuse was essential. But for checks and balances, liberty in Cyberspace is bound to turn into license. Indeed it will be detrimental to civil society. The Law Officers of the Central Government were prepared to give an assurance that the amended section will not be misused. The Hon’ble judges of the Supreme Court rejected pleas of Law Officers that their assurance of non misuse will be meaningless as governments come and go. Assurance given by the present government may not be honoured by a successor government.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court went into depth by citing two cases from the United Kingdom where in two similar cases courts of law had differed in their opinions and thus had arrived at different conclusions. The Supreme Court Bench also said that since the relevant section had left room for ambiguity and different interpretations of similar facts it was of utmost importance that a clear cut law was laid down through an order of the Apex Court.
The judgement was delivered and read by Justice RF Nariman in an open court on behalf of his brother judge, and he struck down the relevant section as unconstitutional as infringed on the Right of Freedom of Expression guaranteed by the Constitution of India.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Government of India had opposed striking down the concerned section merely because it was vaguely worded, some cabinet ministers of the central government have applauded the Supreme Court judgement. The underlying thought is that hereafter the law will not be abused by the Administration and the Police to put people behind bars for exercising their right to freedom of expression. One may safely surmise that Bharat may boast of promulgation of Law and reiteration of Rule of Law in the country.
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