Delhi riots | Supreme Court grants relief to Facebook official

We wanted to get some safeguard suggestions from the social media platform, it says

September 23, 2020 04:31 pm | Updated 10:39 pm IST - New Delhi

Ajit Mohan, vice-president and managing director of Facebook India Online Services Private Limited. File

Ajit Mohan, vice-president and managing director of Facebook India Online Services Private Limited. File

The Delhi Legislative Assembly clarified in the Supreme Court on Wednesday that “no coercive steps” were intended against Ajit Mohan, vice-president and managing director of Facebook India Online Services Private Limited, when he was summoned to appear before it as a ‘witness’ in connection with ‘allegations’ linked to the Delhi riots .

Also read | Attempt to hide crucial facts on Facebook’s role in Delhi riots, says Assembly committee

“The person was only called as a witness. No coercion was intended. We wanted to get some safeguard suggestions from Facebook. We wanted to find out how Facebook was misused and did not say Facebook misused,” senior advocate Abhishek Singhvi, for the Assembly, submitted in court.

Justice S.K. Kaul, heading a three-judge Bench, pointed out that there is a disparity in what Mr. Singhvi is submitting in court about the nature of the summons and what is actually said in them.

Issuing notice, the court asked Mr. Singhvi to file its counter, putting the clarifications on record.

Also read | Facebook neutral, non-partisan, its India chief says defending handling of hate speeches

The clarification came in a petition filed jointly by Mr. Mohan and Facebook against the summons issued by the Committee of Peace and Harmony of the Assembly. Mr. Mohan was summoned to appear before the Committee on September 23. Mr. Singhvi told the court that the Committee has deferred the meeting.

The court asked the Assembly to not fix any further meeting with the Facebook official for now as the court is seized of the case. It scheduled the next hearing for October 15.

In their petition, Mr. Mohan and Facebook, represented by senior advocates Harish Salve and Mukul Rohatgi, respectively, accused the Assembly of threatening him with “breach of privilege” if he did not appear before the Committee and testify. They said the Committee had no authority to compel him to testify.

Also read | Delhi riots | Assembly panel summons Facebook India chief Ajit Mohan

“I have a right to remain silent. The right to free speech under [Article 19] includes the right to not speak. I work for an American company. I am an outsider and I do not interfere with your [Assembly’s] working... You cannot compel me to come. There is a serious threat here in breach of privilege,” Mr. Salve argued Mr. Mohan’s brief.

Justice Aniruddha Bose, on the Bench, addressed Mr. Singhvi saying Mr. Mohan could raise his rights under Article 19 to keep silent “because you [Assembly] are compelling him to say something”.

Mr. Mohan and Facebook have challenged the jurisdiction of the Assembly to summon him. The petition said the issue comes within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Union.

Also read | Our policies on hate speech uniformly applied: Facebook

The petition has asked whether the privileges of the Assembly “include the power to compel the appearance of non-members to express their views or subject them to examination”.

The petition has said a larger Bench of the apex court should hear and decide whether a Committee of the Delhi Assembly can compel testimonies in issues of public order and police which are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Centre under Articles 239 and 239AA(3)(a) of the Constitution.

It has contended that the Chairman of the Committee had held a press conference announcing that “Facebook should be treated as a co-accused” in the Delhi riots and that there was a “premeditated conspiracy between Facebook, rioters and anti-social elements” shortly before the first summons was issued.

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