Free Speech and the Illiberal Liberal

I Googled the word Liberal before starting this piece.  The first definition in the search list was, “willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own, open to new ideas”

There is always a tension between the freedom of someone to say what they like and the freedom of someone to not be harmed by the opinions of others but I will argue that many who consider themselves to be liberal are, using the definition above, actually illiberal.  This illiberal attitude permeates the utterances of many on in the centre and left – an active opposition to free speech.  There is a growing intolerance of opposing views and rather than accept that others can have a different and equally valid opinion and arguing rationally your viewpoint, the vogue now is to ostracise and shame – as publicly as possible. 

We see the victims of this narrow-minded illiberalism in the fear of individuals to do and say what they really feel for fear of being publicly shamed and, in extreme cases, losing their jobs and livelihoods.  The examples of this are many and varied, from the footballer who refused to wear a poppy emblem on his shirt prior to a match on Remembrance weekend, to the charity boss who dared to blog that, whilst he totally agreed with the sentiment that black lives matter, the aims of the organisation fronting it was a threat to our way of life.  


As we clamour for more diversity in many aspects of our lives and experiences, the one diversity being curtailed by this intolerance is the diversity of ideas.  Universities are becoming the breeding ground for this.  University should be the place where you are subjected to as diverse a set of ideas as possible and your thinking is constantly challenged.  The growth of safe spaces and no-platforming in our highest institutions of learning is worrying in the extreme.  No platforming used to be reserved for extremists who wanted to ferment hatred (even this – to the true free speech purist – would be controversial) but now it is used to stop mainstream politicians and polemicists from speaking and sharing their thoughts on what some would consider controversial topics.  How can it be acceptable in a free society for a politician, celebrity or polemicist to be shouted down, abused and threatened with violence just because they are saying things others disagree with? 

We shouldn’t be wrapping people in cotton wool and protecting them from difficult and challenging ideas.  Offence is a word that is far too easily used now – when people are ‘offended’ it often just means they disagree with someone’s entirely valid but opposite viewpoint.  Be offended by blatant racism, xenophobia and bigotry but don’t use the word offence when you disagree with someone’s view on Brexit, Israel or the Black Lives Matter movement.    

Virtue signalling, no platforming and the cancel culture concept are signs of the growing trend that our own opinion is infallible and anyone who disagrees must be evil incarnate.  We don’t help ourselves by sticking inside our comfort zone and reading and listening to people who hold the same views as we do.  The echo chamber helps the illiberal liberal become more intolerant.  I consider myself left of centre but I choose to read magazines, newspapers and commentators that challenge my thinking rather than reinforce it.   

I may disagree with your views on Brexit, white privilege, identity politics or any other controversial topic but I will fight for your right to say them.  In many cases offence is taken, not given, and its roots are in our own inability to challenge our own thinking. Liberal used to mean accepting the concept of free speech but I fear for the first footballer who doesn’t ‘take the knee’ at the start of a game when their teammates do, the feminist who voices the view that sex is a biological concept and the comedian who tells the risqué joke.  Freedom of speech and expression is on life support and it isn’t the far right at fault but the illiberal liberals.      

Wayne Chadburn is a mathematics teacher and columnist for Liberal Base. He lives in Penistone, South Yorkshire where he serves as a Town Councillor. Wayne blogs at and Tweets @waynechadburn.