13/01/2015 8:45 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Ban Online Content Offending Religious Sensibilities, Government Tells Supreme Court

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NEW DELHI, INDIA - DECEMBER 30: Activists of rightwing organizations Bajrang Dal and Hindu Sena burn the posters of Aamir Khan-starrer film PK outside Delite Cinema Theater on December 30, 2014 in New Delhi, India. Right-wing outfits accused Aamir Khan-starrer PK of hurting religious sentiments of the majority community demanded a ban on the film. Bollywood and theatre owners came out openly in support of the hugely successful Hindi film which takes a hard-hitting swipe at organised religion and godmen. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

New Delhi: Extreme political views and decent humour in the cyber world cannot be prohibited, Centre told the Supreme Court today while making out a case for blocking outrageous and offensive contents hurting religious sentiments.

"The extreme political views or contrary views and decent humour cannot be prohibited," Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Tushar Mehta submitted before a bench comprising Justices J Chelameswar and R.F. Nariman.

The ASG, however, placed documents indicating that those posts which had the potential of "outrageously and directly offending" religious sentiments needed to be prohibited in the cyber world.

Mehta also wanted that the documents, submitted in a sealed cover, should be only for the perusal of the bench but when the opposite parties demanded them, he was asked by the judges to supply them the material.

The law officer then requested that the contents of the documents prohibited from posting on the social networking sites, should not be allowed to be circulated.

The brief submission by the ASG was made just ahead of the start of the hearing on a bunch of petitions seeking scrapping of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act for its misuse by law enforcing agencies in arresting people for sending offensive messages.

The hearing on several petitions filed over the last two years had to be commenced afresh due to the change in the combination of judges in the bench.

The first PIL on the issue was filed in 2012 by law student Shreya Singhal, who sought amendment in Section 66A of the Act, after two girls—Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Shrinivasan—were arrested in Palghar in Thane district as one of them posted a comment against the shutdown in Mumbai following Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray's death and the other 'liked' it.

The apex court had in 2013 said a person, accused of posting objectionable comments on social networking sites, cannot be arrested without police getting permission from senior officers.

The direction had come in the wake of numerous complaints of harassment and arrests, sparking public outrage.

It had, however, refused to pass an interim order for a blanket ban on the arrest of such persons across the country.

Commencing the arguments, advocate Prashant Bhushan appearing for an NGO, Common Cause, submitted that "there is considerable evidence of the gross human rights violations in the form of arrests and threats under this Section, as well as its chilling effect on free speech".

Section 66A of the IT Act provides the power to arrest a person, besides a jail term of maximum three years, for sending "offensive messages through communication service".

He said his submission was restricted to the extent of challenging the constitutional validity of section 66A while other petitioners would address the issue of Section 80 of the Act, which deals with the power of police officers and other officers to enter, search and arrest without warrant any person from any public place on suspicion of alleged violation of the law.

The activist lawyer began his arguments by stating that in the absence of any precise definition, limitation or clarification as to the extent and the scope of each of the expressions used in section 66A, it is impossible for a man of reasonable intelligence to precisely ascertain what conduct is prohibited under it.

He contended that expressions used—'grossly offensive', 'menacing character', 'annoyance', 'inconvenience', 'danger', 'obstruction', 'insult', 'injury', 'enmity', 'hatred', or 'ill-will'—are "vague, elastic and general".