The Centre has justified Section 66A of the Information and Technology Act (IT Act), which was used to arrest two girls in Maharashtra in the aftermath of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray's death.
In its response to a PIL by one Shreya Singhal, a student, the information and technology ministry disagreed with the petitioner's contention that the provision violated freedom of speech and expression.
Singhal's PIL cited the arrest of the Mumbai girls to support her contention for striking down the controversial section of the law. Section 66A of the IT Act provides for up to three years in jail as punishment for sending "offensive" or "annoying" messages through a computer or communication device.
On November 30, 2012, the Supreme Court had issued a notice to the Centre and Maharashtra government.
Admitting that the arrests were unjustified, Maharashtra government stated in its affidavit that it has taken a very serious view of the matter - even suspending the official concerned. "The government of Maharashtra respectfully submits that it is cognizant of the chilling effect such incidents could create, and has taken firm action in the matter," it said. The Centre's affidavit, however, defended the inclusion of the provision and said that the legislative intent of the Act was to curb the sending of offensive messages through computers and communication devices. It said that the words used to describe the provision were imported from the Indian Penal Code to make it more broad-based.
The affidavit stated that freedom of speech was subject to reasonable restrictions, and misuse of the law by a particular section cannot make it unconstitutional. It also made a mention of a government advisory issued on January 9, which barred the arrest of a person under Section 66A without the approval of an officer not below the rank of a DCP.