The Supreme Court on Tuesday warned the Centre it would make inoperative certain controversial provisions of the Information Technology (IT) Act often invoked by authorities to muzzle free speech on social media, if it failed to clarify its stand within a week.
"Heavens are not going to fall if the provisions are stayed... because this country has been in existence for the past 60 years without these provisions," a bench headed by Justice J Chelameswar said.
"Either you file the affidavit within a week or we will stay the operation of the provisions until we dispose of the matter," the bench told additional solicitor general Maninder Singh as he sought two weeks to file an affidavit.
The Centre is to clarify its stand on a two-year-old petition seeking to declare unconstitutional sections 66A and 74 of the IT Act.
While Section 66A provides for maximum three-year imprisonment for sending 'offensive' or 'annoying' messages through a computer or communication device, Section 74 provides for two-year jail term for intermediaries hosting such content.
Citing the arrests made under the two sections by various state police, petitioner Shreya Singhal contended the arrests amounted to curtailment of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. The provisions were vague and broadly worded, she contended.
As Singh insisted that the matter be adjourned for two weeks, the bench retorted, "We leave the choice to you. Either you file an affidavit within a week or we will stay the operation of the provisions. The choice is yours."
The SC’s warning came after the petitioner’s counsel Manali Singhal opposed grant of yet another opportunity to the Centre to spell out its stand. She said the PIL was filed way back in April 2012 and the Centre had not come out with any categorical stand.
The bench agreed with her, saying, "This matter cannot be treated lightly. Two years have passed and there is no definite answer from you (Centre)." It fixed December 9 to hear the matter further.
Shreya petitioned the SC assailing the arrests of two girls in Mumbai in November 2012 for a Facebook post against the shutdown of the metropolis during Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray’s funeral procession.
Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, facing a case in Uttar Pradesh for posting certain 'objectionable comments' in a tweet in 2012, is also a petitioner before the SC. She has sought quashing of the case, which was registered in Bareli district after her tweet criticising AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal for meeting Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan, became public. Khan had issued a fatwa against Nasreen in 2007.
Last year, the Centre had issued a general circular to all the states and union territories mandating that prior permission of an Inspector General/DCP rank officer should be taken before arresting a person under these provisions.