Shreya Singhal vs Union of India Case Explained

Shreya Singhal v. Union of India AIR 2015 SC 1523
Date of Judgement: 24 March 2015

In this article, you will read about the landmark judgement of Shreya Singhal along with its facts, issues, judgement and how it reaffirmed the importance of free speech and expression in a democracy.

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Introduction

Shreya Singhal vs Union of India is a landmark judgment delivered by the Supreme Court of India in 2015, which upheld the constitutional validity of freedom of speech and expression on the Internet.

The case was filed in response to section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, which criminalised sending offensive messages through computers or communication devices.

The petitioner, Shreya Singhal, challenged the provision on the grounds of being vague, overbroad, and violative of the Fundamental Right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

In addition, the case raised important questions about the scope and limitations of free speech in the digital age and the balance between individual rights and state regulation in the online space.

Facts of the Case

In 2012, two girls were arrested in Mumbai for posting comments on Facebook criticizing the shutdown of the city for the funeral of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray.

The girls were charged with offences under section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which criminalised sending “offensive” or “menacing” messages online. The section also punished the sending of information which was “grossly offensive” or had a “menacing character“.

The arrests of the girls generated widespread indignation (anger), with many advocating for section 66A to be repealed.

Shreya Singhal, a law student, petitioned the Supreme Court of India, questioning the provision’s validity. She said the terminology was ambiguous, overbroad, and stifling of free expression.

The case was considered by a Supreme Court division bench comprised of Justices J Chelameswar and Rohinton Fali Nariman.

During the hearing, the government argued that section 66A was necessary to curb hate speech and prevent the spread of fake news. The petitioners, on the other hand, alleged that the provision was being used to stifle genuine dissent and criticism. Accordingly, the court notified the government and asked it to respond to the petition.

In the meantime, more and more cases were being filed under section 66A, leading to a growing public outcry. As a result, the court was inundated (flooded) with petitions challenging the section’s constitutionality.

Issues of the Case

The issues involved in the case of Shreya Singhal vs Union of India were:

  1. Whether section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 violates the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution?
  2. Whether section 66A of the IT Act is vague and overbroad and, therefore, liable to be struck down?
  3. Whether section 66A of the IT Act creates a chilling effect on free speech?
  4. Whether the terms ‘grossly offensive’ and ‘menacing character’ used in section 66A of the IT Act are vague and uncertain?
  5. Whether section 66A of the IT Act is a reasonable restriction on the right to free speech and expression?

The key issue in the case of Shreya Singhal vs the Union of India was whether section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 violated the Fundamental Right of free speech and expression as guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.

Section 66A of the IT Act made it an offence to send “offensive” messages using a computer or any other communication device.

However, the term “offensive” was not defined clearly, and the provision was widely criticized for being vague and allowing for arbitrary interpretation and misuse. The phrase also lacked safeguards against misuse or misapplication, prompting concerns that it may be used to limit free expression and silence critical voices.

The case raised the issue of whether such a provision, which had the potential to curtail free speech and expression, could be allowed to exist in a democratic society that values the right to free speech as a Fundamental Right.

Judgement

The Supreme Court of India, in the case of Shreya Singhal vs the Union of India, AIR 2015 SC 1523, passed a landmark judgment on March 24, 2015, declaring section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, as unconstitutional.

Sending material through a computer resource or a communication device that is egregiously offensive, menacing, or causes irritation, discomfort, danger, obstruction, insult, harm, criminal intimidation, hostility, hatred, or ill will is illegal, according to section 66A. The section also provided for the punishment of any person who knowingly or intentionally disseminates any information that is known to be false and is prejudicial to national integration or may cause incitement to an offence.

The issue before the court was whether section 66A violated the Fundamental Right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution.

The court held that section 66A was vague and overbroad. Therefore, it did not satisfy the test of constitutionality laid down under Article 19(2) of the Constitution, which provides for reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression.

In addition, the court held that the terms used in section 66A were undefined and, therefore, left too much to the discretion of law enforcement agencies, leading to arbitrary and discriminatory application of the law.

The court also held that section 66A exceeded the reasonable restrictions that could be imposed under Article 19(2), as it criminalized speech that was not directly linked to any harm or threat to public order, national security, or other legitimate state interest.

The court, therefore, struck down section 66A as unconstitutional and held that it had a chilling effect on free speech and expression and could be used to suppress opposition and government criticism.

The judgment in the Shreya Singhal case is significant as it reaffirms the importance of free speech and expression in a democracy and underscores the need for laws to be clear, precise, and narrowly tailored to meet legitimate state interests.

The judgment also highlights the judiciary’s role in protecting Fundamental Rights and ensuring that laws are not misused to curtail those rights.

How Does the Shreya Singhal vs Union of India Judgement Reaffirm the Importance of Free Speech and Expression in a Democracy?

The judgment in Shreya Singhal vs Union of India reaffirmed the importance of free speech and expression in a democracy. The court noted that the Internet had become an essential part of the right to free speech and expression and that any attempt to curtail this right would violate Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.

The court highlighted that any restrictions on speech or expression must be reasonable and carefully tailored to serve the interest at stake. The court also held that vague and ambiguous provisions in the law could not be used to restrict free speech and expression.

In this case, the court struck down section 66A of the Information Technology Act as unconstitutional because it was vague and overbroad and chilled free speech and expression.

In addition, the court held that section 66A was not narrowly tailored to serve a legitimate state interest and was not proportionate to the interest sought to be achieved.

The ruling upholds the fundamental idea that a democratic society’s foundation is freedom of speech and expression. Any attempt to curtail this right must be carefully scrutinized to ensure it is justified and proportionate. The judgment has been widely hailed as a landmark decision in the field of free speech and expression in India.

The judgement reinforces the constitutional value of free speech and expression, a Fundamental Right enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The right to receive, transmit, and share information and ideas, as well as the right to voice disagreement and criticism, were both upheld by the court.

The judgement highlights the importance of ensuring that laws regulating free speech are narrowly tailored to achieve their intended purpose and do not impinge on the constitutional right to free speech and expression.

The court’s ruling strengthens the judiciary’s role as a defender of individual rights and liberties against the overreach of the state. It sends a message that individuals have the right to challenge unconstitutional laws and seek protection from the judiciary.

The case also underscores the significance of social media and the Internet in shaping public discourse and providing a platform for free expression. The court recognized the Internet as a vital medium for exercising the right to free speech and expression. It acknowledged the need to balance the competing interests of free speech and regulation in the digital age.

Conclusion

The Shreya Singhal vs Union of India case was a landmark judgement in Indian constitutional law reaffirming the importance of freedom of speech and expression in a democracy.

The judgement struck down section 66A of the IT Act as unconstitutional and, in doing so, provided greater protection for individuals to express their opinions and thoughts online without fear of prosecution.

The case also highlighted the importance of balancing free speech with the need to protect individuals from hate speech, cyberbullying, and other forms of online harassment.

The judgement set a powerful precedent for future cases related to online free speech and expression and continues to be an important reference point for constitutional lawyers and scholars in India.

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Suhani Dhariwal
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