We should demand free speech but use it with kindness

Free speech is important to us as Liberals. So much so we made it a fundamental human right. The freedom to exchange ideas and challenge orthodoxy is what leads to new radical plans to make a better future. Without debate we have dictatorship, literally by dictation. 

And yet, often we choose to limit how freely we use our speech. Classically, this is put as the “Does free speech include demanding the right to shout ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre?” question.

A modern way of putting that, which we seem to be seeing appear quite a lot, looks to be: “Does free speech include demanding the right to compare the government of Israel to the Nazis?”

To which my answer is: “I will not stop you saying that. But you could perhaps choose not to.”

Many members of the Jewish community in the UK are living in a state of increased fear caused in no small part by the actions of a tiny but noisy number of Labour Party members (and former members) and the inactions of the Labour leadership.

I would like to think we can do better than that.

For a lot of Jewish people the idea of “Israel” is so much deeper than merely a specific geographic place – it is an expression of Jewish and religious identity, and goes to the heart of their sense of self and family and community. It is impossible to describe just how hurtful, wounding and cruel it is to link that idea of self to the Nazi Holocaust that was in large part about exterminating that identity. We just should not do it.

And while the Likud government of the State of Israel can – and in my opinion should – be loudly condemned for many of its actions, that government cannot be said to speak for all Jewish people, or all Zionist opinion or even speak for huge numbers of people who actually live in Israel.

The existence of a Jewish state, in defiance of genocide, and surrounded by hostile dictatorships (hostile to Western civilisation in general, not just Israel) is something we should find it in our hearts to celebrate – for diversity as much as tenacity – even as we try to encourage that State to do better. 

We isolate Israel at our peril. To do so is to force their government into a corner. It makes their government more afraid, and so behave worse.

Liberalism doesn’t preach unfettered freedom. We also seek to stand up for the underdog, to promote a fairer world, and an outward looking one that brings people together. 

The Harm Principle (On Liberty, JS Mill & Harriet Taylor) is about when it is right to put limits on other people’s freedom. And words do cause harm, particularly when they add to the poisonous post-referendum atmosphere of division when attacks on Jewish property and assaults on Jewish people (and not just Jewish, but other religious, ethnic and LGBT+ minorities) are all on the rise.

But I’m not calling for restrictions on anyone’s freedom. I’m just asking that we think before we exercise it and choose how we use our freedom. Because what we say and do has consequences.

(My Twitter timeline is littered with examples of my own failing to stop and think before exercising my freedom of speech. The consequences are never pretty.)

Using language that insults drives a wedge between us, and emboldens the people who would use any means – including violence – to silence Jewish voices and Liberal voices forever.

If instead we accept terms of debate that enshrine the IHRA definition that is not to restrict freedom of speech, but to say that we will use it wisely.

* Richard Flowers has been a Party member for 20 years. He’s campaigned in many an election, stood as a local councillor, and Parliamentary candidate, was Chair of Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats, and in 2020 will be Liberal Democrat candidate for the Greater London Assembly constituency of City and East. Thanks to Liberal Democrats in government, he is married to his husband Alex Wilcock. He also helps Millennium Elephant to write his Very Fluffy Diary.

Read more by or more about .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • A piece that is 100% right. So very well put.

  • Malcolm Todd 9th Aug '18 - 5:14pm

    This is mostly quite reasonable (aka similar to what I think…). But I think it’s questionable to put “comparing the government of Israel to the Nazis” with “shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre”. The point about the latter is that there’s a pretty obvious risk of harm from an obviously mischievous or malevolent action: it’s a very high bar for restriction on freedom of speech.

    This is what makes much of the debate on alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party so frustrating: almost every allegation I have seen is either too vague to be assessed or relates very much to criticism of Israel; and in particular, as this post obviously reflects, to the Labour Party’s tweaking of IHRA’s examples (not the definition) of antisemitism.
    In particular, the idea that is antisemitic to compare Israeli policy to Nazism is just nonsense. (Of course, some people who make the comparison will be antisemitic: Logic 101 will show that that’s not the same thing.) All sorts of people, governments, actions and policies are compared to Nazism, Stalinism and Fascism every day, especially on the internet (we’ve all heard of Godwin’s Law by now, surely?) – most of those comparisons are hopelessly exaggerated if not completely off the mark; and when the target is Israel it might be thought particularly tasteless. (Though at the same time, it’s easy to see how the potential for irony attracts the comparison.) But the comparison is made so often, in so many contexts that have nothing to do with Israel or Jews, that it’s nonsensical to see it as specific to either, and so it is divorced from antisemitism.

    I don’t know what lies behind the accusations of antisemitism in the Labour Party; I don’t know whether it’s a bigger problem in Labour than elsewhere in politics and society (though I’m inclined to doubt it). But I’ve read the IHRA definition and the Labour Party’s, and I think for anyone who has done so to suggest that there is something sinister about the difference between them is either blinkered or mischievous.

  • David Evershed 9th Aug '18 - 7:20pm

    Although Lib Dems support free speech I think they also support banning hate speech, including hate speech against Jews or Israelis.

  • David Evershed
    Hate speech is illegal against specified groups anyway. As far as I know all mainstream political parties do support maintaining the ban. The whole ethos, and the preamble to our Constitution encourages us as Lib Dems to treat everyone fairly and respectfully as individuals whatever their background, ethnic origin, gender, disability, sexual preference etc.

    It might be useful to bring together those whose primary interest is in opposing anti Jewish / anti Semitic behaviour with those who might be more inclined to see their opposition more focused on Islamophobic behaviour, to see if joint definitions can be worked up. This could be a step towards some progress in Israel / Palestine. I say this, because it is clear that anti-semitism has been claimed in the Labour Party row against those who have supported, or even talked to, various parties in the Palestinian conflict, eg Hamas. It may well be that some political groups in the Middle East (Israel as well as Arab countries – even in Iran!) are not pleasant western oriented factions. But they are not living in a western society. That should NOT mean we as westerners should not talk to them for fear of being described as anti-semitic / Islamophobic etc. Very often there needs to be talking with those who others profoundly disagree with, to reach workable solutions.

  • Gordon Lishman 10th Aug '18 - 8:09am

    Malcolm: Richard didn’t say “that it is antisemitic to compare Israeli policy to Nazism”. He said: “It is impossible to describe just how hurtful, wounding and cruel it is to link that idea of self to the Nazi Holocaust that was in large part about exterminating that identity. We just should not do it.” I agree with him.

  • Helen Dudden 10th Aug '18 - 8:18am

    The Jewish Chronicle is always a good source.
    The question is, why shout fire? Most certainly, it would cause panic.
    I long for a society, that is more peaceful. Where there is less need to move, because of war and starvation. Is this just a dream? As a baby boomer, born just after the war years, there was still on going restrictions and life was not easy.
    I think politics is not only about comments that are negative, I’ve written, on the subject of housing here today. The NHS, there are so many other issues that Mrs. May should be considering. Is there life other than Brexit?

  • Martin Walker 10th Aug '18 - 8:44am

    This is an excellent article which I warmly welcome and strongly agree with. There is one issue that troubles me a bit, though.

    You say

    “We isolate Israel at our peril. To do so is to force their government into a corner. It makes their government more afraid, and so behave worse.”

    Does this apply to all Governments who pursue the kind of policies we see from the Israeli Government? If so, then fine – but part of the IHRA definition is

    “Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

    Again, I strongly agree with that (as I do the whole IHRA definition). I think, though that it works both ways – ie we shouldn’t accept a behaviour from Israel that is not accepted by any other democratic nation.

    I think that a fundamental reason why the hard left is riddled with anti-Semitism is that over a prolonged period, unchallenged, they have failed to grasp the difference between ‘Jewish’ and ‘Israeli Government’. In challenging anti-Semitism (which we must at every turn), we mustn’t stray into the same mistake and start accepting unacceptable behaviours by the Israeli Government. Not saying for one minute that you were, by the way.

  • Malcolm Todd 10th Aug '18 - 3:26pm

    Gordon Lishman 10th Aug ’18 – 8:09am
    “Malcolm: Richard didn’t say ‘that it is antisemitic to compare Israeli policy to Nazism’.”

    I know. I was talking about the IHRA example of antisemitism that was omitted in Labour’s definition and which is evidently the context in which this specific point is being raised. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.

    I largely agree with you and Richard that we shouldn’t make the comparison, because it’s insensitive and shows a lack of proportion; but I don’t think Israel deserves or requires specific protection on that point or, above all, that it should be considered a test of antisemitic intent.

  • David Evans 10th Aug '18 - 4:01pm

    Indeed the problem with the IHRA definition is that it includes

    “Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

    but does not include

    “Applying double standards by excusing it of behaviour that falls below that expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

This post has pre moderation enabled, please be patient whilst waiting for it to be manually reviewed. Liberal Democrat Voice is made up of volunteers who keep the site running in their free time.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Joe Bourke
    I think Laurence's comment is apposite. Right-wing extremists marching through Jerusalem does resemble the Orange Order marches at the beginning of the Trouble...
  • Jeff
    Little Jackie Paper 11th May '21 - 10:55pm: Whilst it might be reasonable to say that there is a certain misplaced nostalgia in some circles I would ...
  • David Evans
    Andrew, I think you are slightly mistaken - We need 14.6% swing to win in Chesham and Amersham. The sadly now lost Brecon and Radnor by Election only swung by ...
  • Jeff
    Peter Martin 13th May '21 - 8:36am: I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to Tony Benn but his main criticism concerns the lack of democracy in th...
  • David Evans
    Indeed David, The loyalty to some inappropriate mechanism, designed to make life easier for the PM (whose ministers are tied to whatever he wants) and for burea...