Incorporating limits: On IPC and hate speech

Proposed hate speech provisions should be clear and free of vagueness

The Committee for Reforms in Criminal Laws attracted criticism when it was formed last year, as many feared a hurried process without adequate and wide consultation. Some lawyers and activists said it was not inclusive and questioned its ability to gather a wide range of opinion in the midst of a pandemic. While such points of criticism remain, it appears that the panel would go ahead and make its recommendations soon. In the context of the hate speech provisions, it must direct its efforts to define narrowly the sections it proposes to formulate and avoid the pitfall of using vague and overbroad terms that would fall foul of the Constitution. Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, it may be recalled, was struck down by the Supreme Court because it failed to define some terms that sought to criminalise offensive and annoying messages. Ever since this 2015 decision, some governments see a lacuna in the law concerning offensive messaging over the Internet. If at all new sections are to be introduced, it should be clear that what is sought to be punished is incitement to violence or advocacy of hatred, posing an imminent threat to public order or a targeted group. Only then will it be a valid curb on free speech.

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