IN so many ways, these are strange times politically. The extraordinary polarisation, the rise of populist and far-right forces, the dominance of figures like Donald Trump – who seem more like performed characters than real people – and the wildfire spread of delusional ideas and conspiracies into the mainstream. All this despite our generation’s unprecedented access to unlimited information at the touch of a screen.

At the same time, freedom of speech has become so charged an issue, more so now than I can remember. In much of the world, far more people have far more ability to express themselves and reach an audience than ever before. In contrast, some societies remain under the grip of brutal authoritarian governments who lock people up for writing the wrong kind of poetry, maintain an iron grip on internet access and media output, and permit no hint of public protest. Yet those who claim to be champions of free speech and have access to enormous public audiences are, for the most part, not expressing solidarity with those in more oppressed places.

READ MORE: We must not tolerate hate but freedom of speech is important

In the years leading up to the EU referendum, when anti-immigrant sentiment was being hyped to extraordinary levels of hostility, how often did we hear the complaint that “you’re just not allowed to even debate immigration in this country” right in the middle of a TV debate? How many column inches were filled up with rants against feminism, against LGBT people in soap operas, written by people trying to make out that a PC culture was suppressing the views or ideas that they were happily sharing with anyone who would read them?

Online, I lost count many years ago of the people who would respond to any challenge against prejudice, bigotry or ignorance with the claim that they were being censored. For some people, it seems that being challenged or criticised is the same as being censored, and their freedom of speech must include the freedom to speak without ever being challenged or opposed.

It’s some of the biggest bullies in our society who most loudly assert that their freedom of speech is under threat. People like Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson, who has long used his own powerful platform to intimidate and harass other people, are only too happy to indulge their martyr complex by casting themselves as the oppressed voice of the public, the silenced majority.

It has reached the point where we must acknowledge that freedom of speech as a concept has been almost entirely co-opted by the far right. Now, more than ever, we need to push back against this, and to reframe a progressive case for freedom speech as a social good. The truth is that freedom of speech has never been an absolute. Almost nobody would reject the idea that some limits must exist for public protection, and there are some well-known and accepted limits, such as defaming other people to threatening or inciting violence.

But there is another sense in which a simple, blanket approach to free speech is problematic, and that’s the inequality of power.

As with the inequality of wealth in a free market economy, where absolute freedom inevitably results in the freedom of powerful people to exploit, control or oppress those with less, so the same power imbalance arises when speech is used by the powerful against the powerless. The loudest voices insist on their own freedom of speech, oblivious or callous to the impact this has on those who are already marginalised.

There’s no coincidence that some of the same right-wing forces who would seek a deregulated, winner-takes-all economy are also the advocates of a “marketplace of ideas” approach to free speech.

The marketplace is rigged against those who have less money to spend, and the marketplace of ideas is rigged against those who are easily coerced into silence by the loudest voices.

If our workplaces and classrooms are to be places where everyone can thrive and express themselves, there have to be limits on misogynist, racist, transphobic or other language which excludes and marginalises people.

If our public services are to be delivered in ways which meet all our needs equally, those whose needs are different must be free to say so without being drowned out by a majority. If our laws are to be informed by the diversity of everyone they affect, the voices that otherwise wouldn’t get into our parliaments and council chambers sometimes need to be amplified.

If we fail to reclaim a progressive case for freedom of speech, we risk it becoming only the freedom for the loudest to get even louder, and to make the marginalised even less heard.