This article on ‘Shreya Singhal Vs Union Of India: All You Need To Know’ was written by Shriharshini Balachandar, an intern at Legal Upanishad.
In 2012, the Indian government introduced a new section to the Information Technology Act, of 2000, known as Section 66A. This section made it an offense to send “offensive” messages through communication devices like the Internet, social media, or instant messaging platforms. The punishment for violating Section 66A was up to three years in jail and a fine.
However, this law was widely criticized by activists and legal experts, who argued that it violated the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The law was also used to stifle dissent and criticism of the government, leading to several cases of individuals being arrested for making online comments deemed “offensive.”
One such case was that of Shreya Singhal, a law student from Delhi, who challenged the constitutionality of Section 66A in the Supreme Court of India. Her case, known as Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, became a landmark judgment in the Indian legal system, setting important precedents for freedom of speech and expression in the digital age.
Background of Shreya Singhal vs Union of India
In 2012, two young women from Maharashtra were arrested for criticizing the shutdown of Mumbai due to the death of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray on Facebook. The police charged them under Section 66A of the IT Act, claiming that their comments were “offensive” and had caused “hurt” to the sentiments of Shiv Sena supporters.
This incident sparked a nationwide debate on the misuse of Section 66A and its potential to curb freedom of speech and expression. Several other cases of misuse of the law were reported, including the arrest of a man who had “liked” a Facebook post critical of a political leader, and a cartoonist who had uploaded a cartoon mocking the government’s response to a dam project.
Shreya Singhal, who was a law student at the time, decided to take up the cause and challenge the constitutionality of Section 66A. She filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court of India, arguing that the law was vague, overbroad, and violated the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.
The Shreya Singhal Vs Union Of India case was heard by a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justice J. Chelameswar and Justice Rohinton F. Nariman. The central government defended the law, arguing that it was necessary to maintain public order and prevent the spread of hate speech and fake news.
Key arguments in the Shreya Singhal Vs Union Of India
Shreya Singhal’s main argument was that Section 66A was vague and overbroad, and therefore, it violated the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. She argued that the law was so broad that it could be used to curtail any form of online communication, including legitimate criticism and dissent.
Shreya Singhal’s lawyers also argued that the law was unconstitutional because it did not contain any guidelines or standards for determining what constituted “offensive” or “menacing” communication. They argued that this lack of clarity gave too much discretion to law enforcement agencies, leading to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of the law.
The government’s main argument was that Section 66A was necessary to maintain public order and prevent the spread of hate speech and fake news. They maintained that the law had been successfully applied to stop cyberbullying and online abuse, and that multiple high courts in India had upheld it.
In the matter of Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, the Supreme Court of India issued its ruling in March 2015. The Information Technology Act, 2000’s Section 66A was deemed unlawful and overturned by the court. According to the Indian Constitution’s Article 19(1)(a), Section 66A infringes on the basic right to freedom of speech and expression.
In its judgment, the court noted that the law was too vague and overbroad, and had a chilling effect on free speech. The court held that the terms “grossly offensive” and “menacing” were subjective and could be interpreted in a manner that would curtail legitimate criticism and dissent.
The court also noted that Section 66A was not narrowly tailored to achieve its stated objective of preventing cyberbullying and online harassment. The court held that the law was not proportional to the harm it sought to prevent and that it had a disproportionate impact on free speech.
The court also held that the law had a “chilling effect” on free speech and that it created a “perceptible” danger of arbitrary and discriminatory application. The court noted that the law had been used to target individuals who had engaged in legitimate criticism of public figures and institutions.
The impact of the judgment
The judgment in the case of Shreya Singhal vs Union of India was a significant victory for free speech and expression in India. The judgment set an important precedent for the protection of online speech and expression, and it provided clarity on the limits of government regulation of online communication.
The verdict had a substantial effect on India’s legal system as well. Following the ruling, numerous other Information Technology Act of 2000 provisions were contested on similar grounds, and many of them were overturned by the courts.
The judgment also led to a renewed debate on the need for a comprehensive data protection law in India. The court noted in its judgment that the lack of a comprehensive data protection law in India had created a situation where sensitive personal information was being collected and used without adequate safeguards.
- Need for a thorough data protection law: The decision emphasized the requirement for a thorough data protection law in India. People should be aware of how crucial it is to prevent the misuse of their sensitive personal information, and they should insist that the government take action to safeguard their information.
- Clarity on government regulation of online communication: The judgment provided clarity on the limits of government regulation of online communication. Individuals should be aware of their rights and should take action when their freedom of speech and expression is curtailed by government action.
- Importance of challenging unconstitutional laws: The judgment in the case of Shreya Singhal vs Union of India was the result of a legal challenge to an unconstitutional law. It is important for individuals to challenge unconstitutional laws and regulations that infringe upon their rights, and to seek redress through the courts when necessary.
- Need for continued vigilance: The judgment in the case of Shreya Singhal vs Union of India was an important victory for free speech and expression, but individuals should remain vigilant to ensure that their rights are not infringed upon in the future. It is important to monitor government action and challenge unconstitutional laws and regulations when necessary.
In the Indian legal system, a significant decision was made in the case of Shreya Singhal vs Union of India. The ruling clarified the boundaries of government regulation of online communication and acknowledged the value of free speech and expression in a democratic society.
The judgment also highlighted the need for a comprehensive data protection law in India and the importance of protecting sensitive personal information from misuse. The judgment has had a significant impact on the legal landscape in India and has set an important precedent for the protection of online speech and expression.
- Merrin Muhammed Ashraf, Revisiting Shreya Singhal versus Union of India: A not so bright spot in the free speech jurisprudence of India, The Leaflet, 29 July 2022, available at: https://theleaflet.in/revisiting-shreya-singhal-versus-union-of-india-a-not-so-bright-spot-in-the-free-speech-jurisprudence-of-india/
- Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, Columbia University, available at: https://globalfreedomofexpression.columbia.edu/cases/shreya-singhal-v-union-of-india/
- Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, Fonology Legal, 2 February 2023, available at: https://blog.finology.in/Legal-news/shreya-singhal-vs-union-of-india