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Supreme Court declines to hear plea against hate speech, rumour mongering without prior notice to respondents in another case

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The Supreme Court has declined to hear a plea on hate speech and rumour mongering saying advance notice must be first given to respondents in another plea dealing with similar matters.

The bench of Chief Justice of India Justice N.V. Ramana, Justice Surya Kant and Justice Hima Kohli posted the PIL filed by Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay along with that of Syeda Hameed vs Union of India on November 22 and said the two petitions will be heard separately.

BJP spokesperson-advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay’s PIL filed under Article 32 of the Constitution of India sought directions to the Centre to examine international laws relating to hate speech and rumour mongering and take effective measures to curb it in order to secure rule of law, freedom of speech & expression, right to life, liberty and dignity of citizens.

The bench said advance notice must first be given to respondents in the Syeda Hameed plea and refused to issue notice at this juncture.

In the PIL, through Advocate-on-Record Ashwani Kumar Dubey, Upadhyay has raised two important questions of law firstly as to whether existing legal framework and Indian Penal Code provisions are sufficient to control hate speech and rumour mongering. And secondly, whether the Centre is constitutionally bound to take appropriate steps to control hate speech and rumour mongering.

“The injury to citizens is extremely large because hate speech and rumour mongering has the potential of provoking individuals or society to commit acts of terrorism, genocides, ethnic cleansing etc. Hate speech is considered outside the realm of protective discourse. Indisputably, offensive speech & rumor mongering has devastating effects on people’s lives and risks their health & safety. Hate speech is harmful & divisive for communities and hampers social progress. If left unchecked, hate speech can severely affect not only the rule of law but also right to life liberty and dignity of the citizens,”

-the plea states.

The petitioner sought the Court’s intervention and pass necessary directions:

a) direct the Centre to examine the international laws relating to Hate Speech and Rumour Mongering and take appropriate effective stringent steps to control Hate Speech and Rumor Mongering in order to secure Rule of Law, Freedom of Speech & Expression, Right to Life Liberty and Dignity and other fundamental rights of citizens;

b) alternatively, direct the Centre to take apposite steps to implement recommendations of Law Commission Report-267 on Hate Speech;

c) direct and declare that Sentence for committing the Offences Against Public Tranquility, Offences Relating to Elections, Offences Relating to Religion and Offences relating to Criminal Intimidation, Insult and Annoyance shall be Consecutive, not Concurrent;

d) pass such other order(s) or direction(s) as the Court deems fit and proper to control Offences Against Public Tranquility, Offences Relating to Elections, Offences Relating to Religion and Offences relating to Criminal Intimidation, Insult and Annoyance.

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The petitioner submitted that incitement to violence should not be the sole test for determining whether a speech amounts to hate speech or not. Even speech that does not incite violence has the potential of marginalizing a certain section of society or individual. In the age of information technology and social media, the anonymity of internet allows a miscreant to easily spread false and offensive ideas. These ideas need not always incite violence but they might perpetuate the discriminatory attitudes prevalent in the society. Thus, incitement to discrimination is also a significant factor that contributes to the identification of hate speech.

“One of the classic examples of Hate Speech and rumour mongering is the case of Northeast exodus in 2012, when around 50,000 citizens belonging to Northeast moved from their residences across India, back to the North-eastern States. This was triggered because of the circulation of false images of violent incidents that took place not in India but in Myanmar several years ago. These were projected to be images from the Assam riots of 2012. This resulted in creation of massive panic across the country as other groups started targeting people from Northeast living in other parts of India. The police authorities responded with a complete internet shutdown,”

-says the plea.

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The petitioner states that the definition of hate speech is still subject to wider intellectual and academic debate. What is at issue is the criminalization of hate speech and how the existing laws look at it. Since it is entrenched in the constitutional right of freedom of speech and expression, “hate speech” has been manipulated by many in different ways to achieve their ulterior motive under the garb of such right and the law courts in absence of clear provisions in IPC, are not able to prosecute hate speech charges brought before them with success.

He further elaborates, Hate speech is an incitement to hatred primarily against a group of persons defined in terms of race ethnicity gender sexual orientation religious belief and the like (S. 153A, 295A read with S. 298 IPC). Thus, hate speech is any word written or spoken, signs, visible representations within the hearing or sight of a person with the intention to cause fear or alarm, or incitement to violence. Hate Speech poses complex challenges to freedom of speech-expression. A difference of approach is discernible between US and other democracies. In US, it is given constitutional protection; whereas under international human rights covenants and in other western democracies, such as Canada, Germany, and UK, it is regulated and subject to sanctions. In view of the above, petitioner is of considered opinion that new provisions in IPC are required to be incorporated to address the issues elaborately dealt with in preceding paragraphs.

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