Facebook India has challenged before the Supreme Court the authority of Delhi Legislative Assembly’s panel in summoning its officials in connection with the Delhi riots. Facebook India, through its vice-president and managing director Ajit Mohan, filed a petition in the top court on Tuesday for quashing the two summons and warnings issued to the social networking platform.
The petition, filed through advocate Mayank Pandey, said that the Delhi Assembly Peace and Harmony Committee, which is looking into the role of several factors in the Northeast Delhi riots, has no constitutional powers to either summon Facebook or examine issues that fall in the exclusive domain of the Centre.
The committee lacks the power to summon or hold petitioners in breach of its privileges for failing to appear since such powers do not extend to compelling non-members when the non-member has not impeded or obstructed legislative functioning, said the plea. It added that because Mohan has done nothing to impede or obstruct the legislative functioning of the Delhi Assembly – even by not appearing – the committee has no authority to compel his testify or hold him in breach of privileges.
The petition further said that when the Delhi Assembly cannot exercise powers with respect to issues relating to ‘public order’, ‘police’ and ‘communication’ because there are exclusively in the domain of the central government, a committee of the same Assembly cannot go into the same.
“Here, the Committee, through the Impugned Summonses, seeks to exercise powers which have been expressly denied to the Legislative Assembly itself. The Committee seeks to compel Petitioner No. 1 (Mohan) to provide testimony on subjects within the exclusive domain of the Union of India. Specifically, the Committee is seeking to make a ‘determination of the veracity of allegations levelled against Facebook’ in the Delhi riots, which intrudes into subjects exclusively allocated to the Union of India,” said the plea, adding that the two summons dated September 10 and September 18 tend to violate fundamental rights of the petitioners to privacy and remain silent, without self-implication.
“By targeting the Facebook service – a platform that allows users to express themselves – the impugned summonses create a chilling effect on the free speech rights of users of the Facebook service,” said the petition, also complaining about committee chairman Raghav Chadha’s press conference on August 31 on the “alleged complicity of Facebook and rioters.
“The Committee’s infringement of these rights is especially problematic given that the Impugned Summonses and the Committee’s statements in press conferences demonstrate that petitioners are being treated as an accused and guilty as charged,” it said.
At the same time, the plea added that Mohan is not even being accorded the constitutional right to be silent and is instead being compelled to speak against himself and other petitioners (Facebook India and Facebook Inc) in response to the Committee’s assertions that Facebook was complicit in the Delhi riots.
“This is impermissible under law and constitutes a gross violation of due process and Petitioner No. 1’s rights under Article 19(1)(a) and Article 21 of the Constitution,” it added.
The petition, as an urgent measure, has requested the top court to stay the operation of the two summons and restrain the Committee from issuing any further summons or take any coercive measure.
The matter will be heard on Wednesday by a bench led by Justice Sanjay K Kaul. Senior advocates Harish Salve and Mukul Rohatgi are expected to represent Facebook and Mohan respectively.
Facebook India executives last week had skipped a summon issued by the Assembly panel over a Wall Street Journal report that claimed Facebook deliberately did not act on hateful content in the country.
Instead, the panel had received a letter signed by Vikram Langeh, Director of Trust and Safety, Facebook where the latter objected to the notice and requested to recall it.
All members of the Delhi Peace and Harmony Committee, who were present at the last meeting, had taken strong exception to the reply received from Facebook India and had termed the letter as “contempt of the house”, “vague”, “breach of privilege”, and “evasive”. The panel members had urged the Chairman to send a “strong message to them to appear and the matter be referred to the privilege committee if they fail to appear and after speaking to the Speaker, a warrant must be issued against them”.
One member had even alleged that Facebook was perhaps acting “on behalf of the central government”.