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Blocking Twitter users: Can politicians be sued for violating fundamental rights?

Several political figures in India are social-media savvy, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi who often uses Twitter to communicate government policies.

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By Gokul Bhagabati 

New Delhi, June 20: The growing use of Twitter and other social media platforms by world leaders to connect with their audience has given public discourse such a distinct direction that new legal and constitutional conundrums have started to emerge for democracies the world over.

One such question was recently raised by a group of lawyers in the US who contended that President Donald Trump cannot always make use of a simple Twitter feature that allows users of the microblogging site to block a follower.

There argument was: Trump’s Twitter account was a public forum and banning users from viewing or engaging with his tweets based on their viewpoints suppresses free speech guaranteed by the US First Amendment.

The lawyers from Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute wrote a letter to Trump on behalf of some Twitter users who have been blocked by the US President after mocking him on the platform.

“The blocking of users from your Twitter account suppresses speech in a number of ways. Users who have been blocked cannot follow you on Twitter, and they are limited in their ability to view your tweets, find your tweets using Twitter’s search function, and learn which accounts follow you. They are also limited in their ability to participate in comment threads associated with your tweets,” the letter (dated June 6, 2017) read.

The move gives birth to a new question: Can social media be treated as a public free-speech forum?

Several political figures in India are social-media savvy, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi who often uses Twitter to communicate government policies. Like First Amendment, the Indian Constitution too guarantees freedom of speech. So do public officials at home have the right to block their followers?

“In case of a similar (real/hypothetical) action by our parliamentarians/public officers who use micro-blogging sites for communicating with the public or to announce policies takes place, the same could also be potentially challenged under the Indian Constitution,” Pavan Duggal, a leading cyber law expert and privacy advocate, told IANS.

Every person has been given a fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.

Though reasonable restrictions can be imposed on freedom of speech, they can be done only in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

“The factum of disagreeing with somebody else and his opinion/views is not a ground on which the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression can be restricted,” Duggal said.

Once the parliamentarians/public officers use micro-blogging sites — if used for the purposes of communicating to the public — the same would be presumed to be public facility and the same would also be presumed to be used for exercise of governmental/sovereign functions.

“In such a case, no person could be blocked. In case, if any person is blocked, the same would be seen to be violation of a person’s fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India,” Duggal said.

The issue raised by Knight First Amendment Institute highlighted the fact that people have right to talk back to their leaders.

According to a USA Today report, Trump has “basically turned” his Twitter feed “into a public forum,” such as a Town Hall meeting.

“I would suspect he could retain the right to block people who are abusive by commonly accepted terms, but just to block people for being critical, you could argue they are protected by the First Amendment. … We have the right to talk back to our leaders without penalty,” Gene Policinski, Chief Operating Officer at the Newseum Institute and First Amendment Center, told USA Today.

This case also serves as a signal to other local, state and federal officials to be inclusive on Twitter, added Katie Fallow, a senior litigator at the Knight First Amendment Institute.

However, some experts believe that blocking the right to block on Twitter may be stretching the legal parameters a little too far.

“People who work for or represent any government or organisation have two different roles — one of elected representative, officers or employee and another one of private individual,” Anoop Mishra, one of the nation’s leading social media experts, told IANS.

“Being an individual, one has full rights to block anyone on Twitter or Facebook to avoid interpersonal disputes and abusive conversations of haters,” Mishra added.

Duggal believes that if a person is blocked simply for expressing different opinions or disagreements, such an action could be challenged within the writ jurisdiction of the concerned High Courts or the Supreme Court under Articles 226 or Article 32 of the Constitution, respectively.

“Merely because a Twitter handle/user is targeting a particular Minister, the same is not a ground for the government to direct to block the said user,” said Duggal, also a senior Supreme Court advocate.

But should our public officials be stripped of the power to block their followers, could they be left at the mercy of trolls?

“Twitter needs to do far more to control trolling than what it is currently doing. It needs to have strong anti-trolling policies which need to be effectively implemented,” Duggal noted, adding that trolling should be made a serious offence punishable with imprisonment.

(IANS)
(Gokul Bhagabati can be contacted at [email protected])

Cities

BJP MLA’s brother booked for abusing J&K CM in rally

“A video had gone viral on social networking sites in which Rajinder Choudhary alias Bubby is heard hurling choicest invective against Mufti,” sources said.

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Jammu, May 21 : Jammu and Kashmir Police on Monday registered a case against the brother of BJP MLA and former minister Choudhary Lal Singh for allegedly abusing Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti during ‘Dogra Swabhiman’ rally organised on May 20 in Kathua district.

“A video had gone viral on social networking sites in which Rajinder Choudhary alias Bubby is heard hurling choicest invective against Mufti,” sources said.

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Politics

BJP is expert in stealing and poaching MLAs: Congress

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Anand Sharma

New Delhi, May 21: The Congress on Monday hit back at BJP President Amit Shah soon after the latter addressed his first press conference post-Karnataka verdict. 

Levelling serious allegations against the saffron party, Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma said the BJP spent around Rs 6,500 crore in the elections and had a provision of 4000 Cr for poaching MLAs.

“The BJP intimidated our legislators, withdrew their security, stopped them from flying. The BJP only did this to be able to abduct and poach our MLAs”, he added.

He further said that the BJP used all means to win Karnataka election but, they failed.

“The BJP has become a repeat offender when it comes to stealing mandate and Govt. Do their rules change with the states”, the Congress asked.

“Will the BJP give an account of its sources of money? On one hand, people’s money was snatched away by PM Modi, while on the other, BJP has all the money”.

Countering Amit Shah’s statement that the mandate in the state was against the Congress, Sharma said that the Karnataka mandate was for the Congress and the JD(S), adding two parties aligned to protect the social and secular fabric of the country.

He further added that he expected Shah to apologise for what the BJP did during the Assembly election and after polls. “But they are experts in stealing and poaching MLAs. On day of floor test too, 2 MLAs had to be protected by the police”.

In a scathing attack on Centre’s proposal of change in the allocation of services to successful candidates of the prestigious civil services examination, the Congress leader stated: ” After creating an environment of fear for Civil Servants, the Modi Govt is now interfering with the procedures of the Civil Services”.

“In the light of the Constitution, Modi Govt’s recent diktat compromises on the neutrality of the Civil Services and violates the constitutional principles”.

Taking a potshot at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Congress said “No PM has ever distorted history and dragged the Indian Army in an election campaign with manufactured lies. This adds to PM Modi’s list of many firsts.”

WeForNews 

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Election

Palghar bypoll: CM accuses Sena of betrayal by fielding

In a jolt to its ally BJP, the Sena fielded Shriniwas Wanga for the by-election after his father and sitting BJP MP from the Palghar seat, Chintaman Wanga, died.

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Palghar (Maharashtra), May 21 : Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has accused the Shiv Sena of betraying the BJP by fielding the son of late MP Chintaman Wanga for the Palghar Lok Sabha seat bypoll.

He claimed the Sena knew that the BJP was already planning to nominate someone from Chintaman Wanga’s family for the by-election, scheduled on May 28.

Lauding Wanga’s association with the BJP, Fadnavis said the late leader represented the party’s ideology.

In a jolt to its ally BJP, the Sena fielded Shriniwas Wanga for the by-election after his father and sitting BJP MP from the Palghar seat, Chintaman Wanga, died.

Fadnavis, at an earlier rally in the district, said he had told Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray that the BJP was planning to give ticket to a member of Chintaman Wanga’s family for the by-election.

“Our ally (on one hand) was welcoming our decision to give ticket to the Wanga family and on the other hand hatching a conspiracy,” the chief minister said at a campaign rally in Palghar’s Nallasopara area last night.

Chintaman Wanga’s wife had yesterday filed a complaint of model code violation against the BJP, accusing the party of using her husband’s pictures on publicity material for the upcoming bypoll illegally.

However, Fadnavis said only the BJP had the right to use the late leader’s photos.

“Only we have the right to put up Chintaman Wanga’s photo. He wasn’t an individual but our ideology,” he said.

Urging the people of Palghar to vote fearlessly without succumbing to any threats, the chief minister said those come between the BJP and the people will be “crushed”.

Nobody should indulge in extortion in the name of the saffron flag, he said without naming any party.

Fadnavis said this was not an election of ‘galli’ (a local street), but ‘Delhi’ (Parliament), and asked other parties to do politics for the welfare of the society.

For the bypoll, the BJP has fielded Rajendra Gavit, who recently left the Congress to join the saffron party.

Fadnavis asserted that Gavit was the right successor to Chintaman Wanga.

“Why vote for those who don’t know whether they exist or not. Rajendra Gavit is like (Chintaman) Wanga who struggles for people…send him to the Modi team (Parliament),” he said.

Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari also spoke at the rally.

Apart from the BJP and the Sena, the Congress is also in fray for the bypoll to the tribal-dominated constituency, located about 110 km from Mumbai, and has fielded former MP Damodar Shingda.

Local outfit Bahujan Vikas Aghadi (BVA), which has three MLAs in total six Assembly segments in the Palghar constituency, has nominated former MP Baliram Jadhav.

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