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Indian Court Strikes Down Section of Law Punishing Offensive Posts

by Prasad Krishna last modified Mar 26, 2015 03:40 PM
The Indian Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a section of a law that allowed the authorities to jail people for offensive online posts, in a judgment that was regarded as a landmark ruling on free speech in India.

The blog post by Nida Najar and Suhasini Raj was published on the website of NDTV on March 25, 2015. Sunil Abraham gave his inputs.

The law stipulated that a person could be jailed for up to three years for any communication online that was, among other things, "grossly offensive," "menacing" or "false," and for the purpose of causing "annoyance," "inconvenience" or "injury." The provisions, which led to highly publicized arrests in recent years, had been roundly criticised by legal experts who called them vague and argued that they had been used in some cases to stifle dissent.

Calling the wording so vague that "virtually any opinion on any subject would be covered by it," the court said "if it is to withstand the test of constitutionality, the chilling effect on free speech would be total."

Sunil Abraham, the executive director of the Center for Internet & Society, which is based in Bangalore, called the decision "amazing."
"It is in continuation of a great tradition in India: that of apex courts consistently, over the years, protecting the citizens of India from violations of human rights," he said.

India is considered by some to be one of the world's most freewheeling democracies, but the law reflected the ambivalence with which Indian officials have sometimes treated freedom of expression, occasionally citing the Constitution's allowance of "reasonable restrictions" on free speech in order to ban books, movies and other material about subjects like sex, politics and religion.

The government recently blocked the screening in India of the BBC documentary "India's Daughter," about the Delhi gang rape in 2012 that made international news.

The law, the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, was passed by parliament shortly after the three-day terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008. It granted the authorities more expansive powers to monitor electronic communications for reasons of national security. That section was not a part of the court case.

In the past, critics have been particularly worried that the section of the law that was struck down was ripe for misuse at the hands of police officials often beholden to political parties.

Last week, a young man in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh became one of the latest people to be arrested under the law when the police said he incorrectly attributed a polarizing statement to the lawmaker Azam Khan on Facebook.

Other highly publicized cases include the arrest in 2012 of a professor accused of sharing cartoons mocking the chief minister of West Bengal state on Facebook and the arrest of two young women after one shared a Facebook post criticizing the virtual shutdown of Mumbai following the death of a revered right-wing political leader there. The professor is still contesting his case in court, while the case against the two young women was dropped in 2013, according to the Press Trust of India.

In a separate part of the Supreme Court judgment, the justices made it harder to force websites to take down content, although a legal expert said it remained to be seen how much of an impediment the ruling would be to blocking content.