Abstract: This blog deals with the fundamental issue of students, right to access mobile phones and the internet through court judgements, international guidelines and fundamental rights. This blog emphasises the importance of granting students this right in a reasonable manner while also maintaining discipline in hostels. The author aims to encourage hostels authorities and associated academic institutions across the country to follow a workable balanced framework that allows access to the internet during working hours and at the same time, doesn’t impose a total ban on the same.
The right of students to use a phone is a fundamental issue that holds significant relevance and needs to be seriously looked into. Many colleges across the nation continue to enforce strict and authoritarian regulations on the phone usage within their hostels. An example of this recently appeared in the news, where IIT Basara, in Telangana, banned the use of mobile phones by students on academic premises. This could be perceived as being unfair to the students as digital learning has become part and parcel of education and other academic activities, as acknowledged by the education minister in Karnataka in 2022. Other similar instances of bans on the use of the internet and mobile phones remain hidden due to fears of academic expulsion and administrative obstacles.
Relevance of Online Learning
According to a report titled ‘India Lockdown Learning’ by Vidyasaarathi, a scholarship management portal promoted by NSDL e-Governance, published in August 2020, smartphones are the primary mode for online learning for 79% of students in India. This
sufficiently demonstrates the largely prevalent use of mobile phones and devices among the students in the recent past. This reliance on phones by the students has significantly increased especially post the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced schools to shut down and introduce academic learning online, with smartphone usage reaching 53 percent in 2021 from 36.5 percent in 2018 as per the ‘Annual Status of Education Report’. During this time, students started discovering various online courses and resources that they could access regularly through their phones without any external support or geographical constraints.
Instead of banning phones outright, there needs to be more of an effort to teach students about the benefits as well as the risks of mobile phone use to further regulate access to the internet while ensuring discipline and safety. It needs to be understood that phones are not just tools of distraction but are also a great source of accessing information.
Expression of Privacy
Often hostels allow phone calls for emergency purposes and under strict supervision. It is important to consider two things under this context – firstly, phones are not only meant for emergency calls but are also a very important resource for everyday personal and
professional activities. Secondly, to allow their use only under supervision is a clear violation of the right to privacy under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. This right has been identified by the Supreme Court of India as an integral part of human dignity in the case of Justice K. S. Puttaswamy and Anr. vs Union of India and Ors case. The Court held that privacy ensures that a human being can lead a life of dignity free from unwanted intrusions and possess the right to make essential choices. Hence, a student being given reasonable access to a phone within working hours of an educational institution can be considered as a rational exercise of one’s right to privacy, enabling a student to make personal choices without undue external influence.
In the Puttaswamy case, the court had clearly specified that the principles as regards reasonable restriction are that the restriction should not be excessive and should be in the interest of the public. Although fundamental rights can be subject to reasonable restrictions, the instant case casts doubt on the rationality of an almost absolute prohibition on phones as the students in hostels are being unjustly deprived of equitable access to academic resources and educational materials that are accessible through their phones.
The invaluable time spent within hostels can be channelled into more productive avenues by permitting the use of phones and internet that would enable access to educational resources. Further, it also facilitates communication through text or calls with loved ones, which should be allowed as per the will of the student rather than being subjected to hostel authorities’ judgement on what is deemed ‘necessary’. If access to phones would not inherently warrant indiscipline, implementation of a reasonable curfew for the phone usage can be a viable option. Nevertheless, a near total ban would isolate students from the outside world through unnecessarily restrictive and obsolete measures.
Fathima Shireen and Beyond
An important judgement was passed by Kerala High Court in 2019 on this issue in the case of Fathima Shireen vs State of Kerala. In the instant case, the use of electronics was previously restricted between 10 PM and 6 AM. Here, the administration changed the timing to 6 PM to 10 PM arbitrarily, without any proper notice or discussion with the students. The petitioner refused to agree with this unreasonable restriction, stating that the Kerala government itself was exploring the possibility of digital learning even from the school level, and the Education Department has introduced QR Code in textbooks enabling the students to scan them and read the lessons and allied topics and watch the videos in their mobile smartphones or tablet. Both of these instances cited by the petitioner demonstrated the government’s push towards digitalisation of the education system.
The Petitioner raised valid grounds for the state education department to allow access to online resources post-school and college hours and took this issue to the hostel administration. She stated that being denied electronics between 6 PM and 10 PM was
equivalent to denying the petitioner the right to access these resources and hindering her education. The Petitioner was subsequently unjustly expelled from the hostel for raising these concerns.
The Single Bench of Justice PV Asha declared the right to access the internet as an afundamental right under the Right to Education under Article 21-A and the Right to Privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The Court held the following: “the enforcement of discipline shall not be by blocking the ways and means of the students to acquire knowledge. They should be left to choose the time for using mobile phones. The only restriction that can be imposed should not cause any disturbance to other students”. The court acknowledged the various uses of phones – from communication to e-resources. The court also clearly emphasised that discipline is important, however, it cannot be misinterpreted as an excuse for restriction on resources necessary for acquiring knowledge. Discipline is meant for development and not to put students in the backseat and kill their means of progress.
The relevance of this judgement is not limited to Kerala or a particular college as many hostels across the nation continue to impose an absolute ban on mobile phones. As a result, students are deprived of access to all forms of online resources directly pertinent to their academic curriculum or additional online courses they may wish to pursue. A total ban is a complete restraint on the personal liberty of a student to make conscious academic choices for himself or herself outside the school/college hours.
Thus, a precedent has already been set with regard to the usage of mobile phones in Kerala and it needs to be replicated across the country for every student has the right to access educational resources of one’s choice that supplement and enhance one’s learning process outside the scope of school and college. Besides, a total ban or a ban during working hours is highly unreasonable and is not an excuse to maintain discipline when the central Government itself is promoting online education through its National Education Policy by encouraging online courses and resources.
Freedom of Speech and Expression
Another important fundamental right one can argue that has been violated is the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) which allows students to freely express their views and opinions. In the case of Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India, the Supreme Court of India had clearly stated that the freedom of speech and expression extended to the use of the internet, recognizing that online expression has become one of the major means of information and therefore it was crucial to the enjoyment of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a).
Mobile phones are an online medium of expression and therefore it can be established that restricting them is a violation of the freedom of speech and expression. The only exception to this right is national security under Section 19(2) of the Indian Constitution which doesn’t come into play here. Additionally, in an earlier judgement of Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, the Supreme Court had recognized the internet as having democratising effects on communication, fostering a marketplace of ideas, and hence stated in clear terms that “access to information is an integral part of the right to express free thought” while striking down
Section 66-A of Information Technology Act. Another important judgement rendered by the Supreme Court in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting v. Cricket Association of Bengal & anr. held that the right to receive and communicate information is also a part of freedom of speech and expression.
Thus, it is clear that the usage of mobile phones constitutes the essential fundamental rights of education, privacy and freedom of speech and expression and hence a total ban or ban during working hours is a not reasonable justification and is rather, a serious violation of the fundamental rights of students.
Equality of Access
This total restriction of mobile phones in hostels is a violation of their right to equality under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. The fact that non-hostellers can use mobile phones (in their homes) not only puts hostellers at a serious disadvantage with regards to utilising phones for various educational, communication and other purposes but also is an unfair and unjust discrimination.
Thus, such policies are violative of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. Article 14 does allow for reasonable classification, however, in a scenario where the non-hostellers can freely use their phones while the hostelers are not allowed to use their mobile phones on the grounds of possible indiscipline is unreasonable. A workable balance needs to be brought in where phones are allowed for educational and communication purposes with monitoring until a certain point, like curfews. The fact that the students could potentially wander or encounter risks does not mean that hostels keep them confined forever. Similarly, the probability of
phones leading to harmful exposure does not imply an absolute or unreasonable ban on them.
UGC Regulations and International Guidelines
The University Grants Commission has recently changed its stance on the issue in order to keep up with the changing times. Its 2009 regulation on curbing ragging in higher education institutions under Section 184.108.40.206 allows for access to mobile phones in hostels and with limited restrictions, even in classrooms. UGC guidelines are for the enforcement of discipline but not at the cost of violating the fundamental rights of students or their access to information and knowledge.
The Government, too, has the directive principles of securing social order (Article 38) and facilitating the right to work and education (Article 41) and therefore is ideally expected to promote and allow for internet access to students for academic purposes as part of the right to education. It has effectively pursued this aim through policies such as the National Education Policy and PM eVIDYA program that advocates for online courses. UGC has set up policies based on the same, like setting up an Academic Bank of Credit, allowing students of a particular university to pursue up to 50 percent of a course online.
Additionally, many international guidelines too exist. In the European Court of Human Rights case of Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey, it was held that the restriction on access to a source of information by the internet must be compatible and reasonable as the internet has become the principal means of exercising information. The court also, in Cengiz and Others v. Turkey, stated that legitimate claims could be made against blocking orders that affected an individual’s right to access and impart information through the internet. Under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, freedom of speech and expression includes the right to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority.
A Workable Balance- Discipline and Internet Access
Students across different dimensions require the use of phones and other digital electronics in order to stay connected to the world at large. A student’s working hours potentially constitute the time frame after school or college, especially between 5 to 10 pm, during which they can revise academic lessons, pursue online educational courses or prepare academic assignments and papers. During this period, it is necessary to provide hostellers with mobile phones and other electronics in order to enable them to access a wide range of online resources in a reasonable framework, as already suggested in this blog.
This not only exposes them to learning material and courses beyond the scope of the classroom but also empowers them significantly in making conscious academic choices for themselves based on their individual research. Mobile phones have the potential to significantly empower the younger generation, benefiting from their increasing social influence and constant influx of innovative ideas. By harnessing the power of mobile technology, these devices can serve as excellent tools for launching new online businesses.
Discipline, though, at the same time is important in hostels too. Discipline and monitoring are needed to ensure that students don”t go off stray and expose themselves to graphic and sexual content through the internet. Negative outcomes of overexposure to smartphones include poor sleep quality, attention deficit, academic procrastination, deterioration of personal relationships, etc. However, at the same time, a regulated and productive usage of phones can reduce the digital gap, completion of homework, collaboration among peers, quick accessibility of information, and vocabulary enhancement.
Hence, this blog suggests a framework that grants internet access while also upholding hostel regulations such as phased bans whereby the students are allocated a minimum of 4-5 working hours daily after their school or college commitments. This would enable them to access educational resources and online courses provided by both the government along with private entities. Online activity can be monitored to ensure that students, especially juveniles, don’t misuse the right by accessing graphic/sexual content, but a fear of such negative exposure should not be used as an excuse to completely cut off students from any form of online resources throughout their time in the hostel. In no way can a complete ban on phones that cut off students from the outside world and essentially shut them off into the dark be deemed a reasonable measure of restriction. Discipline is important, but the practices
governing it need to evolve with the changing times when education is evolving beyond the scope of the traditional classroom.
Thus, discipline ought to be maintained in a reasonable manner where the right to access the internet is not entirely restricted for hostellers during working hours, and a practical framework needs to be developed with a cut-off time of 10 or 11 pm, post which electronics are prohibited. However, presently many hostels impose complete or unreasonable bans during working hours. Students deserve reasonable access to phones in order to exercise their right to make conscious academic choices and further their learning process beyond the school/college curriculum.
Aadithya J Nair.
National University of Advanced Legal Studies Kochi