The Supreme Court allowed bail to BJP Yuva Morcha leader Priyanka Sharma on Tuesday who as arrested and sent to two-week judicial custody for sharing a morphed image of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Facebook. However, the court asked her to apologise for her action.
The apology, however, is not a condition for her immediate release. The court has merely asked her to write an apology after she leaves custody.
The court said free speech, though non-negotiable, cannot step on the toes of another person’s right.
Also, the fact that Ms. Sharma was a rival political leader and the “meme” was shared in the thick of the Lok Sabha polls seem to have played on the minds of the Vacation Bench of Justices Indira Banerjee and Sanjiv Khanna.
At one point, Justice Banerjee said it “is wrong to put somebody’s face onto some other’s person”.
Ms. Sharma shared on Facebook a photo in which Ms. Banerjee’s face has been photoshopped on to actor Priyanka Chopra’s picture from the MET Gala event 2019.
‘Sheer infringement of fundamental rights‘
Senior advocate Neeraj Kishan Kaul, for Ms. Sharma, said her arrest and the order for a fortnight’s judicial custody for sharing a meme are sheer infringement of fundamental rights. The State action had a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech and expression. Just because some powerful persons do not like a meme on the Internet, will they arrest a person who shared it and force the latter to apologise for bail, Mr. Kaul asked.
The lawyer urged the court to open the larger question regarding free speech on the Internet.
Justice Khanna explained the case revolved around a person who is a member of a political party.
The Bench indicated that a political leader shoulders greater responsibility than a common citizen to exercise restraint. A politician, even a young leader like Ms. Sharma, should be prudent.
“Freedom of expression cannot encroach on the rights of another person,” Justice Banerjee remarked. The Bench issued notice to the West Bengal government and has kept the larger issue of free speech on the Internet alive.
Ms. Sharma was arrested on May 10 by the West Bengal Police under Section 500 (defamation) of the IPC and under other provisions of the Information Technology Act on a complaint from a local Trinamool Congress leader, Vibhas Hazra.
On Monday, the Supreme Court decided to hear her urgent plea for bail.