A law that made posting “offensive” content on social media punishable by jail has been struck down in a landmark ruling by India’s Supreme Court. With senior UK politicians of all parties almost falling over one another to clamp down on “offensive” content, one could be forgiven for asking “Could a similar defence of free speech happen here?”
The Indian Supreme Court reached its decision last Tuesday after a two-year free speech campaign led by law student, Shreya Singhal.
The court determined that the ‘section 66A’ amendment to India’s Information Technology Act was a restriction on freedom of speech and therefore unconstitutional. Reading the judgment, Justice R F Nariman said: “The public’s right to know is directly affected by section 66A.”
It’s ironic that democratically elected politicians, who ostensibly win their positions through a contest based on free speech, should have backed such an amendment in the first place. Even so, the law received presidential assent in 2009 and made posting content of “grossly offensive or menacing character” punishable by up to three months in prison.
Free speech activists argued that section 66A had already been repeatedly misused by the police: examples include a university professor who was detained after posting a cartoon the police claimed was offensive to the chief minister of West Bengal, and a teenager who was arrested in the poor region of Uttar Pradesh for posting a Facebook comment which the police claimed “carried derogatory language against a community.” Arresting and jailing teenagers for talking twaddle could fill the prisons to overflowing in no time.
Civil rights lawyer Karuna Nundy, who represented the activists in the Supreme Court hearings, said:
“People who have taken on the biggest bullies can now speak without fear. The sense of freedom is wonderful. In these times of crackdowns on free speech around the world, and in India too, I am glad that our constitution still redeems us.”
Politicians from all parties welcomed the decision, which raises questions about why they supported the amendment in the first place. But sinners who repent are to be welcomed, no matter how late in the day they choose to do so. Perhaps UK politicians, the inheritors of the world’s oldest democracy, should look to India for a real defence of that core British value they keep talking about: free speech.