The girl who saved freedom of speech: Meet 24-year-old student Shreya Singhal

In 2012, senior lawyer Manali Singhal, while having a discussion with her daughter about the arrest of two girls over a Facebook post under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act in Palghar,  asked the latter to file a PIL in the Supreme Court if she was so concerned about freedom of speech and expression.

Shreya Singhal was the first to petition against Section 66A of the IT Act. Image Courtesy: ANI/Twitter

Shreya Singhal was the first to petition against Section 66A of the IT Act. Image Courtesy: ANI/Twitter

Three years later, on 24 March, 2015, the Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the IT Act on the basis of the PIL filed by Manali Singhal's daughter.

"As it often happens at home, a discussion turned into a debate and an argument. I asked her, if you are so concerned, then why don't you file a PIL? Two days later she had the first draft ready. She had worked on it with a lawyer," The Times of India quoted Manali Singhal as saying.

 

Shreya Singhal, the 24-year-old law student who is now being hailed as the girl who saved free speech, was the first to petition against the draconian Section 66A, the provision in the cyber law which provided power to arrest a person for posting allegedly “offensive” content on websites.

Section 66A had been used by political parties like the Shiv Sena, Trinamool Congress and Samajwadi Party to get people arrested for posting online content against their leaders.

Elaborating on the grounds for holding the provision as “unconstitutional”, the Supreme Court had said that terms like “annoying”, “inconvenient” and “grossly offensive”, used in Section 66A are vague as it is difficult for the law enforcement agency and the offender to know the ingredients of the offence.

The first petition against this provision in the IT Act was filed by Shreya in November 2012, a day or two after a dinnertime discussion with her mother over the arrest of Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan for a Facebook post against the alleged shutdown of Mumbai due to the death of the then Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray.

Shreya spent three years studying astrophysics in the Bristol University in the UK, according to NDTV, before her gap year in 2012, which she used to apply to law schools in India. She will be the fifth generation lawyer in her family once she formally qualifies, according to Hindustan Times. Her grandmother Sunanda Bhandare was a judge with the Delhi High Court, according to The Telegraph. She is currently a second-year law student in the Delhi University.

The Palghar incident took place when she came back to India in July 2012. Shreya was shocked by the incident. "It could have been me or my friend. How could one be arrested for questioning a shutdown of the city and also for liking the post," Shreya recalled telling her mother.

She filed her petition with the support of lawyers Ninad Laud and Ranjita Rohtagi, according to Huffington Post. Her petition was argued by former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee, who appeared free of cost for Shreya, according to The Telegraph report.

The hardest part for her was the long wait in the case. "The judgment itself came in less than a month...But the journey itself has taken two and a half years," Huffington Post quoted her as saying.

After the apex court's verdict on Tuesday, a smiling Shreya told CNN-IBN, "I am ecstatic...I am very happy with the decision of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has upheld the rights of the citizens today and it is a great day fo everyone."

Talking about the draconian Section 66A, Shreya said, "It was a very vague section and it was being misused all the way upto 2 weeks ago where there was an arrest in UP."

"I don't want people to be scared to say something on the internet if they're not scared to say something in person. The internet as a medium connects you so instantly, and you can't curtail that right. It's so fundamental," she said.

(With inputs from PTI)


Updated Date: Mar 25, 2015 12:22 PM

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