Centre speaks for Section 66A

New Delhi, Jan. 12: The Centre and the Puducherry government have justified in the Supreme Court the invoking of Section 66A of the Information and Technology Act, which was used to arrest two women in Maharashtra and a resident of the Union territory.

The women were booked under the section for questioning on Facebook the virtual shutdown in Mumbai after Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray's death last year.

The Puducherry resident, Ravi Srinvasan, was arrested for allegedly posting "offensive" messages on Twitter against Union finance minister P. Chidambaram's son Karti.

"The action taken by Puducherry police for registering (a) case under Section 66A is not unconstitutional or against the legislative intent and freedom of speech and expression," the Puducherry government said in an affidavit.

If such acts were viewed "leniently", unruly elements of society and even "violent terrorist elements and unscrupulous groups" might misuse social networking sites to "spread rumours" and create panic among the general public by spreading such "false and offensive" messages, the affidavit said.

Section 66A makes it a crime for anyone to digitally send information that is "grossly offensive" or has "menacing character" or which causes anyone "annoyance" or "inconvenience". A person booked under the section can be jailed for up to three years.

Responding to a public interest litigation by Shreya Singhal, a law student, the Union information and technology ministry rejected the petitioner's contention that the provision was bad in law and violated freedom of speech and expression.

The Centre's affidavit defended the provision and said the "legislative intent" of the act was to curb offensive messages sent through "computers and communication devices".

It said the words used in the provision had been taken from the Indian Penal Code to make it more broad-based. The PIL had alleged that the provision was broadly worded.

The Union government said freedom of speech "was subject to reasonable restrictions, and misuse of the law by a particular section cannot make it unconstitutional".

The government referred to an advisory issued on January 9, which barred the arrest of a person under Section 66A without the approval of a police officer not below the rank of deputy commissioner.

Singhal's PIL had cited the arrest of the Maharashtra women to support her contention for striking down the controversial section.

On November 30, 2012, the Supreme Court had issued a notice to the Centre and the Maharashtra government on Singhal's PIL. It specifically directed the state to explain the circumstances under which the two women, Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan, were arrested.

The Maharashtra government has since admitted that the arrests were unjustified.

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