In a landmark judgment upholding freedom of expression, the Supreme Court has struck down a provision in the cyber law which provided power to arrest a person for posting allegedly “offensive” content on websites.
Terming liberty of thought and expression as “cardinal”, a bench of Justices J. Chelameswar and R. F. Nariman said, “The public’s right to know is directly affected by section 66A of the Information Technology Act.”
Justice Nariman, who pronounced the verdict in a packed court room, also said that the provision “clearly affects” the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined under the Constitution.
Elaborating the grounds for holding the provision as “unconstitutional”, it said terms like “annoying”, “inconvenient” and “grossly offensive”, used in the provision are vague as it is difficult for the law enforcement agency and the offender to know the ingredients of the offence.
“When judicially trained minds can reach on different conclusions” while going through the same content, then how is it possible for law enforcement agency and others to decide as to what is offensive and what is grossly offensive, the bench said, adding, “What may be offensive to a person may not be offensive to the other”.
The bench also rejected the assurance given by NDA government during the hearing that certain procedures may be laid down to ensure that the law in question is not abused. The government had also said that it will not misuse the provision.
“Governments come and go but section 66A will remain forever,” the bench said, adding the present government cannot give an undertaking about its successor that they will not abuse the same.
The bench, however, did not strike down two other provisions—sections 69A and 79 of the IT Act—and said that they can remain enforced with certain restrictions.
Section 69A provides power to issue directions to block public access of any information through any computer resource and 79 provides for exemption from liability of intermediary in certain cases.