But Bench refuses to slap blanket ban on the arrest of a person for making objectionable comments on websites

No person should be arrested for posting objectionable comments on social networking sites, without permission from senior police officers, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

Hearing an application from Shreya Singhal against the arrest of rights activist Jaya Vindhyala, a vacation Bench of Justices B.C. Chauhan and Dipak Misra declined to order a blanket ban on arrests for making objectionable comments on websites. However, “we direct the State governments to ensure compliance with the guidelines issued by the Centre on January 9 before making any arrest.”

The advisory mandates that a person charged under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act be not arrested without permission from an officer not below the rank of Inspector-General in metropolitan cities and not below the rank of Deputy Commissioner or Superintendent of Police in districts.

‘No stay granted’

When counsel Manali Singhal pleaded for a ban on all arrests, the Bench said it could not do so, as operation of Section 66A had not been stayed by the Supreme Court, which is examining its constitutional validity.

Under Section 66A, anyone who sends through a computer or communication device any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character could be jailed for a maximum of three years, with an appropriate fine.

The present application was filed in a pending writ petition challenging the validity of Section 66A under which Ms. Vindhyala, president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Andhra Pradesh, was arrested for posting on Facebook derogatory comments against Amanchi Krisna Mohan, Congress MLA of Chirala, and the Governor of Tamil Nadu.

She said the phraseology of the provision was too vague, hence it was tantamount to abuse and thus the provision was violative of Articles 14, 19(1) (a) and 21 of the Constitution.

She said the legality of the Centre’s advisory was questionable as law and order is a State subject. Furthermore, such an advisory would not help to prevent abuse of Section 66A.

“Nonetheless, it is not known whether the advisory was at all followed in the instant case,” she said, praying for a directive that no authority initiate any coercive step on the basis of Section 66A till after the hearing and disposal of the main writ petition challenging the provision.