Faheema Shirin RK Vs State of Kerala (2019)

Decision dated: 19th September 2019

Bench: The Honorable Smt. Justice P. V Asha

  1. FACTS

A BA student, named Faheema Shirin of Sree Narayanguru College, Chelannur Kozhikode of third semester was kicked out of her college hostel. This occurred as a result of the hostel’s policy prohibiting residents from using laptops or phones after 10 p.m. The rule about phone usage was changed from 6 pm to 10 pm. When the student and some others went to talk to the Deputy Warden about how these rules were causing problems, they were ignored. Later, the Warden sent a message through WhatsApp saying that anyone not following the rules should leave the hostel. The student then talked to the principal and sent a letter asking for the rules to be changed. But when the rules were modified to restrict phone usage from 6 pm to 10 pm, she refused to follow them. So, the college told her to leave right away. They also had a meeting with other students in the hostel, telling them what they did to her and asking if they would follow the rules. Because she lived 150 km away from college, she couldn’t come to classes every day. So, she asked for leave. When she refused to follow the new rules, the college told her to leave. Faheema filed a Writ Petition in Kerela High Court aggrieved by her expulsion from the hostel. 

  1. ISSUES RAISED
  • Whether the limitations set by the hostel management regarding the use of cell phones, as part of disciplinary measures, infringed upon the Right to Privacy under Article 21 of Indian Constitution of the petitioner? 
  • Whether the limitations set by the hostel management regarding the use of cell phones, as part of disciplinary measures, infringed upon the Right to Freedom of Speech under Article 19 Indian Constitution of the petitioner? 
  • Whether the limitations set by the hostel management regarding the use of cell phones, as part of disciplinary measures, infringed upon the right to education of the petitioner?
  1. CONTENTION- PETITIONER
  1. The petitioner argued that the restrictions imposed by the hostel management on the use of cell phones violated her fundamental rights. She contended that these restrictions were unreasonable and unjustified, particularly the prohibition on using phones during certain hours. 
  2. The petitioner likely argued that such limitations infringed upon her right to personal autonomy and communication, essential aspects of her fundamental rights. Additionally, the restrictions disproportionately affected her ability to engage in academic pursuits effectively, given her circumstances of having to commute a considerable distance to attend classes. 
  3.  This rule was only applied to the girls’ hostel. This is unfair because it treats girls differently from boys. According to the University Grants Commission (UGC) rules, this kind of unfair treatment based on gender is not allowed. The UGC says colleges must make sure they treat all students fairly, no matter their gender, caste, religion, language, or anything else.
  4. The right to use the internet is part of freedom of speech protected under Article ‘19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution.’ The rules restricting internet access don’t fit within the limits set in Article 19(2) of the Constitution, which allows restrictions only under certain conditions.
  5. The petitioner refers to previous court cases like Anuj Garj v. Hostel Association of India, Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, and PUCL v. Union of India to support her argument. These cases dealt with similar issues regarding rights and restrictions. She argues that the constraints imposed by the hostel management, which led to her expulsion, are unconstitutional. This is because they violated several of her fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India. Specifically, she claims that her right to freedom of expression, privacy, and education were violated by these restrictions.
  6. She claimed that her right to privacy, protected under Article 21 of the Constitution, was breached by the hostel’s rules. As an adult, she believes that nobody should interfere with her ability to use her cell phone. She criticizes the modification of rules, such as the curfew on phone usage and turning off lights by 10 p.m., based on parental concerns. She argued that these changes infringe upon her rights to freedom, privacy, and personal autonomy, as well as those of other hostel residents.
  1. CONTENTION- DEFENDANT
  1. The defendant argued that the hostel management was well within its rights to impose rules regarding the use of cell phones and laptops within the hostel premises. These rules are commonly implemented to maintain discipline, ensure security, and create a conducive environment for study.
  2. They contended that the rules regarding phone and laptop usage were part of the established code of conduct for students residing in the hostel. 
  3. A meeting was held on June 19, 2019, to address parental concerns regarding the improper use of cell phones in the women’s hostel. During this meeting, , everyone agreed to forbid using cell phones between the hours of 6 and 10 p.m. Ensuring that pupils use their study time exclusively for academic objectives was the goal. 
  1. This decision was communicated to all hostel residents by the respective Deputy Wardens.
  2. In Addition, the involvement of the petitioner’s parents in the matter, indicating that the decision to ask her to leave the hostel was made with due consideration of her family’s input and concerns.
  3. According to the warden, the college possesses a comprehensive library containing over 30,000 books, providing students with an alternative means to acquire information during the specified period from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., thus challenging the notion of an arbitrary restriction. It is further asserted that if the petitioner intends to access information via the internet, she is welcome to utilize a laptop, as there are no restrictions imposed on its usage.
  4. In cases such as Sojan Francis v. MG University, Unniraja v. Principal Medical College, Manu Vilson v. Sree Narayana College, and others, it has been highlighted that the director of the institution holds the ultimate authority to oversee and enforce discipline within an academic setting. Both college and hostel authorities are empowered to undertake reasonable measures to uphold discipline, which is their foremost duty. The organization bears the responsibility to educate, uphold discipline, and enforce legally established standards and policies, with an emphasis on ensuring that these regulations do not infringe upon any fundamental rights.
  1. RATIONALE

Reasoning:

  1. Invasion of Privacy: The court held that the restrictions on mobile phone use in the hostel infringed on Faheema Shirin’s right to privacy. The court cited the Puttaswamy case, which established that ‘the right to privacy is an intrinsic part of the right to life, personal freedom, and dignity.’
  2. Importance of Internet Access: The court ruled that access to the internet is integral to the right to education and that mobile phones now facilitate online learning. As a major student, Shirin had the right to make her own decisions about using technology for her studies.
  3. Disproportionate Restrictions: The court determined that the restrictions were unreasonable and disproportionate. The hostel authorities did not provide any evidence of potential threats or disturbances that would justify such a broad ban on mobile phone use.

Legal Principles:

  1. Freedom of Expression: The court relied on the principle that freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threats of demonstrations or violence.
  2. Right to Education and Privacy: The court held that the right to use the internet associates with the right to education and the right to privacy.
  3. Proportionality: The court applied the principle of proportionality, which requires that any restrictions on fundamental rights must be reasonable and proportionate to the threat or harm they seek to address.
  1. DEFECTS OF LAW
  1. Overreliance on Puttaswamy Case: The court heavily relied on the Puttaswamy Case, which established the right to privacy as an intrinsic part of life, personal freedom, and dignity. While the Puttaswamy Case is foundational, overreliance on it may oversimplify the complex interplay between privacy, technology, and societal norms in this context.
  2. Assumption of Disproportionate Restrictions: The court assumed that any restriction on internet access is automatically disproportionate without considering the specific circumstances and potential threats to safety or order. This oversimplification may not account for the difficult balancing act between individual rights and collective responsibilities in a hostel setting.
  3. Lack of Focus on Educational Impact: The court’s focus on privacy and access to the internet as a fundamental right somewhat overshadows the specific impact on education. While the right to education is acknowledged, a more nuanced analysis of how internet restrictions affect academic pursuits and opportunities for growth would strengthen the reasoning.
  4. Ignoring Practical Concerns: The court’s reasoning appears to ignore practical concerns about managing the hostel environment. The court does not adequately address potential issues of safety, order, or distraction that might arise from unrestricted internet use. A more balanced interpretation would consider both individual rights and the collective well-being of the residents.
  1. INFERENCE
  1. Court held that there is no denying that students should abide by laws and regulations and that teachers are like adoptive parents who are expected to guide, support, and care for their students as they pursue knowledge in order to ensure academic excellence.
  2.  It is noteworthy, however, that the college principal has the final authority to impose control. The regulations should be modified to reflect the modernization of technology and enable pupils to obtain knowledge from all pertinent sources. The hostel administration will have the authority to keep an eye on and manage any disruptions or disturbances brought about by other students using their phones, as well as to take appropriate action in the event that a complaint of this kind is made. 
  3. In order to encourage students to live close to the college and provide them adequate time to concentrate on their studies, the institution is required to run a hostel in accordance with university and UGC regulations. Therefore, in order for the hostel administration to enforce discipline, only specific guidelines and protocols must be adhered to. Discipline is not applied by blocking students’ information-gathering strategies.
  4. The respondent is required to re-admit the petitioner to the hostel without any additional extensions, since the court determined that it is unjust to enforce such limits. It is evident that neither the petitioner nor her parent may conduct in a way that would degrade any of the respondents or any other instructor, warden, or matron in the dorm or institution. The petitioner or any other prisoner may also see that using a cell phone in the hostel does not create any trouble to anybody.
  5. The Kerala High Court held that the right to access the internet is a fundamental right that forms part of the right to privacy and the right to education under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. This ruling was a landmark decision that recognized the essential role of the internet in modern society, particularly for students like Faheema Shirin who were residing in college hostels. 
  6. The court emphasized that disproportionate restrictions on internet access can lead to socio-economic exclusions, limiting opportunities and violating fundamental freedoms. The case also highlighted the importance of citing extensive case law, as Faheema Shirin did, to challenge the legality of restrictions on fundamental rights.

Submitted By: 

Mansha Kalra

SVKM’s NMIMS (Chandigarh)