In late March, free speech scored a victory overseas when the Indian Supreme Court officials annulled Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2008, ensuring greater freedom of expression for Indian citizens in online communications.
Section 66A not only grossly violated citizens’ ability to access and distribute information on the internet, but its subjective and vague wording posed a potential legal issue for individual parties to regulate, control, and censor specific information that they deemed inappropriate or offensive. Steadily becoming a tool to suppress certain speech for the sake of “public interest,” Section 66A represented an anachronism that allowed for the legal action to be taken against citizens transmitting content over the internet that could be perceived as “offensive,” having “menacing character,” or causing “annoyance,” “inconvenience,” or “insult.” The subjective definitions of these criteria came into question when police began using and abusing the section to make arrests based on individuals’ Twitter and Facebook posts — posts the police argued represented offensive language that needed to be suppressed for the protection of “public interest.”
Aside from abuse of Section 66A by authorities, the section effectively instilled fear into the Indian public making it almost impossible to determine whether or not what someone said could be criminalized. By being a part of the IT Act, Section 66A covertly took away citizens’ ability to determine what they could and could not say, leading to a public atmosphere of self-censorship and hesitancy to speak out. “This self-censorship by individuals and the press inhibits the very discourse that ensures that democracies remain vibrant and reflective of the diverse expressions of their peoples,” writes Evan Rankin and Amy Tang of Pen International. “Section 66A was struck down because it damaged this fundamental aspect of democracy.”
In their recent decision, court officials deemed that the vague and overly subjective section violated the constitutional rights of its citizens to free speech, and it was removed in a celebratory gesture towards the protection of free expression. “The decision is notable for its comprehensive review of the Supreme Court of India’s jurisprudence on the value of free expression… With s.66A, the Government intruded too far upon the ‘democracy, liberty of thought and expression [which] is a cardinal value… of paramount significance under our constitutional scheme.”
From recent book burnings to an increase in self-censorship, the Indian Supreme Court decision is now more than ever important to make sure that the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression is upheld and protected.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!