‘Distressing’ and ‘shocking’ that people are still tried under Section 66A of IT Act, says SC

Six years ago, the Supreme Court struck down the provision as unconstitutional and a violation of free speech.

July 05, 2021 12:49 pm | Updated 12:57 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

NEW DELHI, 09/04/2013: Supreme Court of India in New Delhi on April 10, 2013. Photo: S. Subramanium

NEW DELHI, 09/04/2013: Supreme Court of India in New Delhi on April 10, 2013. Photo: S. Subramanium

The Supreme Court on Monday found it “distressing”, “shocking” and “terrible” that people were still booked and tried under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act even six years after the Supreme Court struck down the provision as unconstitutional and a violation of free speech.

Section 66A had prescribed three years’ imprisonment if a social media message caused “annoyance” or was found “grossly offensive”.

All you need to know about Section 66A of the IT Act

The Supreme Court, in the Shreya Singhal judgment authored by Justice Rohinton F. Nariman in March 2015, had concluded the provision was vague and worded arbitrarily.

On Monday, senior advocate Sanjay Parikh and advocate Aparna Bhat, for the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), said the number of cases under Section 66A had actually increased post the judgment.

“What is going on is terrible, distressing! We will issue notice,” Justice Nariman, heading a three-judge Bench also comprising Justices K.M. Joseph and B.R. Gavai, exclaimed.

Attorney General K.K. Venugopal pointed out that law books published post the verdict featured the non-existent Section 66A “in full”.

‘Only as a footnote’

“The police officer, while registering a case, looks at only the Section in the main text... The fact that the Section has been struck down is given only as a footnote...” Mr. Venugopal submitted.

“And not being Mr. Venugopal, he [police officer] does not read the footnote...” Justice Nariman said light-heartedly.

But Justice Nariman agreed with Mr. Parikh that the “state of affairs is shocking”.

Mr. Parikh said the court had to intervene and work out a mechanism to disseminate the Shreya Singhal judgment to every police station and trial court in the country.

Govt. given 2 weeks

“Yes, we will work out something,” Justice Nariman assured. The government was given two weeks to file its reply and the PUCL was given a week to file its rejoinder. The case would be listed for hearing after this.

“Section 66A of the IT Act has continued to be in use not only within police stations but also in cases before trial courts across India. This information was available on a website — Zombie Tracker website — developed by a team of independent researchers... The findings of the website reveal that as on March 10, 2021, as many as a total of 745 cases are still pending and active before the Districts Courts in 11 States, wherein accused persons are being prosecuted for offences under Section 66A of the IT Act,” the PUCL submitted.

The NGO has urged the Supreme Court to direct the government, through the National Crime Records Bureau or any other agency, to collect all the data/information regarding FIRs/investigations under Section 66A and pending cases in district and High Courts.

“Direct the Registry of the Supreme Court to communicate to all the District Courts throughout the country (through respective High Courts) to take cognisance of the judgment in Shreya Singhal by which Section 66A of the IT Act has been struck down in its entirety... so that no person should suffer or face any adverse consequences which violate his fundamental rights under Article 21 of the Constitution,” the PUCL urged the Supreme Court.

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