The Supreme Court on Wednesday directed a Delhi Legislative Assembly panel not to take coercive action against Facebook India head Ajit Mohan till October 15 over its summons to him to depose before it in connection with the north east Delhi riots.
Following the order, the Peace and Harmony Committee of the Delhi Assembly deferred its proceedings, and said it would notify the further course of action and the next date of sitting in due course of time.
The committee, chaired by Aam Aadmi Party MLA Raghav Chadha, had issued a notice to Mohan, who is the vice president and managing director of Facebook India, over complaints accusing the social media giant of deliberately not taking action to curb hateful content on its platform.
The committee had issued a fresh notice to Mohan to appear before it on Wednesday.
Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for Mohan, submitted in the top court that the committee cannot decide the breach of privilege of the House and that administrative control over social media is with the central government.
"Privilege is something to be decided by the assembly. A committee cannot decide whether action on privilege can be taken or not," Salve said, adding the Delhi government could not put Mohan 'in the pain of punishment' by asking him to appear before the Committee.
Senior advocate A M Singhvi, appearing for the legislative committee, however, submitted it is not proper for the court to stay the proceedings in the matter, and that there is no question of coercive action.
"I have sought instructions from the Committee that Mohan has been asked (to appear) only as a witness and there is no question of coercive action," Singhvi said.
The apex court's order came on the plea filed by Mohan, Facebook India Online Services Pvt. Ltd and Facebook, Inc, which contended that the committee lacks the power to summon or hold petitioners in breach of its privileges for failing to appear and it was exceeding its constitutional limits.
The plea challenged the September 10 and 18 notices issued by the committee that sought Mohan's presence before the panel which is probing the Delhi riots in February and Facebook's role in spread of alleged hate speeches.
A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Aniruddha Bose and Krishna Murari issued notices to the secretary of the Legislative Assembly, the ministries of Law and Justice, Home Affairs, Electronics and IT, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, represented by the Secretary General, and Delhi Police, asking them to respond to the plea.
"Counter affidavit be filed within one week. Rejoinder affidavit be filed within one week thereafter," the bench said.
It orally observed that 'no coercive action shall be taken against the petitioner till October 15'.
The apex court noted that the only purpose of serving notice to the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha is because in the perception of the petitioner's lawyer there may be some interplay of the powers of the Delhi Assembly and the Secretariats in question.
During the hearing of the petition, Salve further submitted that Mohan has the fundamental right not to speak under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution and being an employee of a US-based company he does not want to comment on this 'politically sensitive issue'.
"Issue is very sensitive and has political overtones. I don't want to comment on the issue which has the political overtones," Salve said.
He said that no coercive action can be taken against his client for not appearing before the committee.
Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Facebook, argued that If he (Mohan) does not go before the committee, it is not breach of privilege.
"I personally as a lawyer have been called by Parliament for giving opinions number of times. You cannot compel and say non-appearance will be breach of privilege. There is no penalisation," he said.
The petition by Mohan said 'the committee seeks to compel petitioner No. 1 (Ajit 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'.
It said there is no law that empowers a State Legislature, including a committee formed by the Legislature, to take coercive action against any person unless it obstructs or impedes its legislative functions.
'When a Legislative Assembly has been denied powers over subjects exclusively assigned to the Union of India, a Committee of that Assembly cannot compel witnesses to appear and provide evidence on those subjects,' the plea said.
Chadha had earlier said non-appearance of any Facebook representative before the panel was not only 'contempt' of Assembly, but also an 'insult' of the two crore people of Delhi.
The hearing by the assembly panel follows a Wall Street Journal report that claimed that one of Facebook's senior India policy executives intervened in internal communication to stop a permanent ban on a Bharatiya Janata Party lawmaker from Telangana after he allegedly shared communally-charged posts.