CHENNAI: The Madras High Court on Friday granted 10 more days to the Centre to file its counter-affidavit in response to a batch of PIL pleas challenging the new Information Technology (IT) Rules.

The First Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice P D Audikesavalu which granted time to the central government to file its counter, posted the matter for hearing after 15 days.

The petitions filed by Carnatic music singer T M Krishna, Digital News Publishers of India, former Editor of The Hindu, N Ram and a senior journalist sought to declare the recently notified Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, as ultra vires of the Constitution and the parent Information Technology Act, passed in 2000.

Among other things, the petitioners contended that Part III of the impugned Rules imposes illegitimate restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

As part of a set of general principles laid down in the appendix to the Impugned Rules, the Code of Ethics directs publishers to take into consideration a slew of factors beyond those that are stipulated as grounds on which reasonable restrictions can be made on speech under Article 19(2).

For example, it directs publishers to “take into consideration India’s multi-racial and multi-religious context and exercise due caution and discretion when featuring the activities, beliefs, practices and views of any racial or religious group.”

These directions are bound to force the hand of publishers to act against the interests of preserving the marketplace of ideas and in the interests of their own businesses.

What more, these directions will also lead directly to the restriction of speech on unconstitutional grounds.

For instance, the Inter Departmental Committee constituted under the Impugned Rules will be at liberty to recommend to the central government the speech which the committee finds offensive to a person’s religious belief ought to be removed, although Article 19(2) permits no such restriction on such a speech.

The new rules, thus, breached Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, petitioners said.

The new Rules are ultra vires the IT Act 2000 too, as no part of the Act confers power on the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to regulate digital news media or online content producers through an Inter-departmental committee or otherwise and as such the rules made under Part IIl are wholly ultra vires the purported parent Act, the petitioners further contended.