The Delhi High Court, on January 6, issued a notice to the Ministry of Electronics and Technology (MeitY) and Twitter, seeking their stance on the petition filed by senior advocate Sanjay Hegde, reported the Economic Times. A single judge bench of Justice Navin Chawla, issued the notice, and listed the case for further hearing on February 11. Hegde had moved the Delhi High Court in December 2019, asking the central government to “frame guidelines to ensure that online speech is not arbitrarily censored by social media websites” such as Twitter. Hegde had filed after Twitter had permanently disabled his account on November 5, 2019, for “hateful imagery” showinga picture of a Nazi dissenter as his profile’s header image.

Arguments made in the brief hearing: In what was reportedly a brief hearing, Senior Advocate Jaideep Gupta, who was representing Hegde, argued about the maintainability of the writ petition against Twitter, and sought that the platform should not delete Hegde’s account data. According to Bar and Bench, Gupta argued that a petition can be filed against non-state actors for violating Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, basing his argument on a judgement passed by a division bench of the Delhi High Court. He reportedly said that “Twitter qualified as an audio visual media or closely related media which was performing a public function”. Senior Advocate Kirtiman Singh, representing the central government, reportedly argued that guidelines pertaining to censorship on social media already exist.

Sanjay Hegde’s petition: The petition, filed by advocate Pranjal Kishore on behalf of Hegde, had sought restoration of Hegde’s Twitter account. Hegde’s profile was first suspended on October 26, for having the picture of August Landmesser as his header image, which Twitter allegedly claimed was “hateful imagery”. The image showed Landmesser not being party to the Nazi salute, with his arms crossed over his chest as a symbol of resistance. In his petition, Hegde argued that he had had the image as his cover photo for over a year and was in fact a symbol of resistance against fascism.

Hegde’s account was restored the following day but was again suspended, on October 27, for retweeting a poem shared by Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)’s Kavita Krishnan with the caption “Hang Him”. In the petition, Hegde said that he sent a legal notice to Twitter seeking a restoration of his account, but to no avail. Additionally, he had also made a representation to the government, but received no response.

Calling the suspension of his account illegal and arbitrary in the petition, Hegde said that the move was contrary to Twitter’s own terms of use. The petition had also accused Twitter of violating Hegde’s fundamental right to free speech. He had also said that the “state has a positive obligation to ensure that the right to free speech is not impeded due to the conduct of private parties”. He had further said:

“… arbitrary ‘take-downs’ or suspensions have a chilling effect on free speech. The power to regulate the same is provided in the IT Act. Section 79 (2) (c) read with Section 87 (2) (zg) of the Information Technology Act authorize the Central Government to prescribe guidelines to intermediaries. In exercise of these powers, the Central Government has laid down various guidelines regarding when content is to be removed. However, no guidelines to ensure that legal speech is not censored have been laid down.” — Sanjay Hegde’s petition

The petition highlighted that following the permanent suspension of Hegde’s Twitter account, “there was an outcry on traditional as well as social media”. It noted that, as a mark of protesting Twitter’s “illegal action,s” several people on the platform shared images of August Landmesser and the poem, and the government took no action against them.

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