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SC directs all states & courts not to arrest anyone ‘spreading offensive content’ on social media invoking scrapped Section 66A

February 17: On Friday, Supreme Court directed all state governments to remind their respective police departments of its March 24, 2015 order which led to the scrapping of Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act. This act enabled police to arrest anyone accused of ‘spreading offensive content’ on social media. The act, when in force, carried a maximum punishment of up to three years in jail.

The Supreme Court bench comprising of Justices RF Nariman and Sanjay Kishan Kaul also directed all high courts to send a copy of the verdict to all trial courts in the country in order to ensure that no one is prosecuted or arrested under this provision.The Supreme Court also sought a response from the Centre in addition to warning concerned officials with imprisonment for violating its orders.

The apex court bench was hearing a plea in this regard filed by NGO PUCL who claimed that people are still being prosecuted under this provision even three years after it was struck down by the Supreme Court. While challenging the constitutional validity of the provision, PUCL reiterated that it is still being invoked by police departments across India in First Information Reports (FIRs).

It needs mention here that the Supreme Court had scrapped Section 66A in 2015 by citing liberty of thought and expression as “cardinal”. It had also stated that the public’s right to know is directly affected by Section 66A of the IT Act. The Apex court bench comprising Justice J. Chelameswar and Justice RF Nariman, struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 in its entirety, for being violative of Article 19(1)(a) and not saved under Article 19(2).

The court had observed that “Section 66A is cast so widely 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.”
Agreeing with the suggestion mooted by the Attorney General of India, the Supreme Court has directed all High Courts to make available the copies of the Supreme Court judgment in ‘Shreya Singhal v. Union of India’ to all the District Courts with eight weeks. The bench also directed the Union Government to make available copies of the said judgment to the Chief Secretaries of all the State Governments and the Union Territories, with eight weeks.

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