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The Uttar Pradesh (UP) police have reportedly filed a criminal case against a man who pleaded on Twitter for help in arranging oxygen to save his grandfather. The charge: circulation of a rumour with the intent of spreading fear. Although Shashank Yadav did not explicitly say his grandfather was a covid patient, the police allege that his tweet was aimed at spreading misinformation about the pandemic by suggesting a shortage, one that UP officials have been at pains to deny.

What the police did deserves condemnation. For one, a plea for help made on a public platform cannot be construed as a misuse of free speech. It is not the equivalent of shouting “fire" in a closed hall, which is the classic example cited to explain why our freedom of expression has abridgements at all. On the evidence available, Yadav’s tweet didn’t result in any threat to anyone’s life or limb. For another, a cry for help that rings true amid our covid scarcities in plain sight, even in UP, should be met with a humane response. Yadav’s grandfather, it turns out, did not survive. That the state’s police saw a crime in his tweet has revealed their warped priorities. They’re supposed to enforce the law, not an image.

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