Freedom of speech means right to dissent also: Shreya

Shreya Singhal

Young Shreya Singhal walked into Supreme Court in November 2012 to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) after two girls, whom she had not met or spoken to, were put behind bars for a Facebook post on the shutdown in Mumbai following Bal Thackeray’s death. Twenty-eight months later, she and a clutch of petitioners emerged victorious with the apex court scrapping Section 66A in Information Technology Act and underlining the freedom of expression. I spoke to Singhal, who is pursuing law from Delhi University’s Faculty of Law.

Excerpts

Sec66A was introduced in 2010. While admitting your PIL, then Chief Justice of India Altamis Kabir wondered why no one had approached the court yet. Why no one approached court until then?

The thing was that it was not misused much (earlier). The really famous case was that of Palghar girls’ (Thackeray) case. Till then, people did not know of the misuse. We found about it only because of media. The arrest of Palghar girls was very shocking. It would have happened to anyone for liking one post. You would have liked many things, a post or a blog post. It is so innocuous that it cannot land you in jail. No one approached us to file it or something. We went to court and impleaded as a party.

Are you happy with the verdict?

It is a brilliant verdict because the court has also done its research. This bench sat every day from morning to afternoon. They have really thought about it. They also saw that it was not protecting anything. Sec 66A was pre-emtively putting you in jail. All it did was criminalise anything you put up on the internet. Here criminalisation is not of an act. By an act, I mean stealing someone’s identity or so. For acts like fraudulent use or identity theft, there are provisions in the IT Act and IPC. However, what Sec 66A did was that it gave a cause to arrest you if some one does not like what you posted. There are bound to be someone who does not like it or finds it offensive. What does a police officer does at the end of the day? They could be bribed. How in a rural area you expect a policeman to make a choice whether one should be arrested under Sec 66A or not.

Police is also not adequately trained to handle such cases

If someone comes and say this has been posted and I do not like it, police have to follow procedure. You see, within 24 hours of the post being put up, they are arrested. If you see the arrests, all of them are made within 24 hours of the post being put up. It takes longer for them to arrest murderers and rapists.

There are apprehensions that it will be free for all now.

I do not agree. The legislative intent in bringing Sec 66A was to stop spamming. Judges also said there was no malafide intent. In theory, it was fine. But in practice, look at what had happened. If you want to control defamation, pornography, child pornography or identity theft, there are provisions in the IPC and IT Act. Our laws have changed to include internet as a medium.

Our legislature cannot be lazy and make a blanket provision. I am not saying internet should be free for all. But you have to see what has happened to the internet, how it is expanding. Reasonable restrictions are fine. Even our Constitution sets reasonable restriction under Article 19(2). But you cannot gag an entire view. The thing with 66A was that if you have written the same thing in newspaper or said it on TV or said it in person, there is no arrest. It was not a crime. The crime is that you have put it on the net. You see, after Thackeray died, newspapers had photographs of Mumbai completely shut down. What did those girls do? One of them posted a comment why is Mumbai shut down, was it out of fear or respect and another liked it. By this logic, half of our population will be in jail because the other half does not like their view. There is a line between being sensitive and over sensitive.

Take any party, be it Congress or BJP or SP, everybody wants a this law in one form or another.

It was misused by everyone. Congress government drafted it and BJP government now has backed it. It was misused by Shiv Sena, Trinamool Congress, SP and many others. When the bill was passed, it took just six minutes to pass it. It is the failure of Parliamentarians who were present there as well as those not present there for not having the bill debated before passage. Frankly, it is their failing in protecting the citizens of the country.

There are different views on present social media discourse. Do you think it is enriching democracy?

It is. Someone may agree with your opinion while some other might find it offensive or annoying. But that does not give anyone the right to get someone arrested. We are not in a tyranny. We are not a dictatorship. We are a democracy. When you have a minority, that is where you have to exercise right to free speech. Right of freedom of speech is also the right to dissent. That is what the judges have said.

(Interview appeared in Deccan Herald on Apr 16, 2015)

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