We have often heard of the quote, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. The quote is often attributed to Voltaire. However, interestingly, it wasn’t coined by him at all. As history would have it, the phrase is actually attributable to a lady by the name of Beatrice Evelyn Hall, who used this phrase in her biography titled ‘the Friends of Voltaire’. This quote makes for interesting reading when viewed through the prism of local politics. Firstly, it is extremely relevant to the tumultuous times that Pakistan is passing through. Secondly, the irony of people using this quote to defend their freedom of expression and speech, and yet incorrectly attributing it to someone else, is certainly not lost on me. In society, the error in attribution often takes away from the meaning of the phrase itself, and much like this, an ad-hominem attack on a citizen is bound to overwhelm the defence of his rights. The cases of Ammar Ali Jan and Rizwan Razi are perhaps pertinent examples. In relation to Ammar, it was purported that his arrest was the result of having participated in a PTM protest, where he had allegedly blocked roads and used ‘anti-state’ language. In regard to Rizwan, a journalist by profession, it was stated that he had published a series of tweets which were anti-government, defamatory, and in violation of various cyber crime provisions. In the face of this, there appeared to be a multitude of voices on the horizon, with two camps being the loudest of the lot. Those in support of these individuals had raised the specter of their right to speech, and how the handling of these cases was nothing short of an attack of the citizen’s right to expression under Article 19 of the Constitution. On the other hand, the detractors would counter with allegations and anecdotes revealing the prior conduct of the arrested individuals. They would be painted as ‘bigots’, ‘prone to violence’, ‘agenda-driven propagandists’, as well as ‘anti-state’. To top it all off, the detractors would also shed light on the alleged hypocrisy of those supporting Ammar and Rizwan, citing the lack of a hue and cry on the arrest of Khadim Hussain Rizvi or other religious leaders. The debate was interesting, albeit innocent of any sort of substance. The issue in relation to the arrests, or in fact, the legitimacy of any support for these individuals, should not have been centered on how morally good or upright they were, or for that matter, their supporters. Whether ‘they were’, ‘are’, or ‘should be’, shouldn’t have been relevant to ‘what was’. All in all, the freedom of expression as enshrined in the Constitution must not be held hostage to the sensitivities and insecurities of the state, its apparatus, or its enforcement agencies. It must be jealously protected so as to afford the citizenry a greater say in the path they choose to follow. After all, such expression serves as a catalyst for developing new ideas, unique solutions, innovative theories, and fresh methodologies for conflict resolution The debate should have been anchored around the principle of it. Were their actions protected under Article 19 of the Constitution? Were the arrests a threat to the right to expression? Were the alleged offenses so grave as to require such treatment? If supporters and detractors alike had debated these questions, inevitably, it would have been noted that the freedom of speech can not be read so narrowly and strictly so as to render it redundant in its very existence. The oft-cited ‘reasonable restrictions of the law’ are meant to structure the freedom of expression, not eliminate or limit it beyond utility. Furthermore, even broad-ended provisions of cyber laws would have to be read in line with Article 19, thereby, narrowing its applicability, as opposed to broadening its scope. If the above questions were in fact seriously considered, it would also be understood that the right to speech is not supposed to be tailored around or straight-jacketed by the moral underpinnings of the individuals in question. The fundamental right, by its very construction, is not limited by the moral bankruptcy of those seeking cover under it. Whether you are a bigot, communist, propagandist, or simply a prude, Article 19 protects your right to be just that, albeit, in a manner which does not violate anyone else’s fundamental rights. By implicitly conditioning a citizen’s freedom of expression to his moral credibility and uprightness, detractors in essence commit a fallacy of the tallest order. Society will only recognize a citizen as upstanding and moral if he falls in line with the mainstream opinions, rituals, and convictions that that society encourages. However, ironically, this is precisely what Article 19 seeks to upend. It is there to protect the citizen’s right to disagree, dissent, and voice such disapproval. It protects the rebel in every citizen. The cavalier explorer in us who doesn’t want to be another brick in the wall, who doesn’t want more of the same, but in fact, wants it all to change. It is the antidote to mundanity, boredom, and the daily routine. And this is the part of the debate that the detractors tend not to understand. To this, such detractors would in counter cite hate speech, and how the freedom of speech is limited in such cases. An often mentioned example of this is usually Khadim Hussain Rizvi, and his inflammatory speeches. Although correct, such individuals would do well to note that hate speech, unlike much else we do, does in fact violate and infringe upon the fundamental rights of others, such as their right to life, dignity, as well as the security of their body and property, amongst other things. Hence, by that logic, if nothing else, it is correctly restricted. However, being critical of a government, dissenting with policy and political stances, pointing out perceived problems, and protesting in support of such position, no matter how harsh, does not appear to fall within the realm of anything which would offend against the rights of others. If it did, most if not all political activity would be banned. All in all, the freedom of expression as enshrined in the Constitution must not be held hostage to the sensitivities and insecurities of the state, its apparatus, or its enforcement agencies. It must be jealously protected so as to afford the citizenry a greater say in the path they choose to follow. After all, such expression serves as a catalyst for developing new ideas, unique solutions, innovative theories, and fresh methodologies for conflict resolution. One would think that the powers that be would want more of that, as opposed to less. The writer is a lawyer based in Karachi Published in Daily Times, February 17th 2019.