Of course the quality of speaking and debate varies. Earlier this year people were having conversations at Speakers' Corner akin to those going on at the time in Tahrir Square in Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world, for example. For many years a Libyan monarchist was a frequent attendee at the corner – his arguments seem slightly less hopeless now, though he wasn't there this weekend to talk to (perhaps he has finally taken his fight back to his own country).
There was some good discussion between participants. But a lot of the heckling—and response to it—was disappointing. I watched a creationist, “Steve” (he wouldn't tell me his surname), tottering at the top rung of his stepladder and leafing through a tatty bible marked with post-it notes. American-born and a formermissionary to the Philippines, he was wearing a cowboy hat, snakeskin boots, and had “Jesus loves you” embroidered on his white trousers. He goes to Speakers' Corner most weekends, he told me, but his style seemed pretty basic to me: he greeted those who disagreed with him by blowing his whistle at them, shouting “you're so boring” or simply swearing at them.
Another man made me laugh: “Before I get started I want you all to know that I have the loudest voice,” he said, before warning that Speakers' Corner had been “invaded by nutcases promising a fast track to heaven”. His message was that religions shouldn't fight each other.
The history of Speakers' Corner is more momentous than the participants I witnessed this weekend might suggest. Hyde Park was a common assembly point for different workers' movements in the mid-19th century, and protests in the park occasionally turned into riots. This was an era when the vote was being extended to groups who had never previously held it, while an unprecedented density of people in London was forcing into the open issues such as the rights of working men. People wanted their say.
The Parks Regulation Act of 1872 did not enshrine Speakers' Corner, but it did establish a general principle that some parts of the park could be used for meeting and speaking. That it was a tradition rather than a law makes the legacy particularly interesting, in my view. Vladimir Lenin and George Orwell are among those who have spoken there.
Hopefully free speech is a given throughout Britain now, not just in some corner of a central London park. Arguably there are plenty of more useful forums in which people can now express their views. So it's interesting not just that Speakers' Corner has survived, but that just in the past few years it has been replicated across Britain and elsewhere. A speakers' corner was set up in Nottingham in 2008; Bristol opened one earlier this year. The principles are slightly different—there are organised events at Bristol's corner, for example, which contrasts with the spontaneity of London. In Hyde Park there is no sign that the zone will become a place for free exchange of views—speakers bring stepladders and old boxes to stand on. Other places such as Lichfield and Worthing have recently built more permanent fixtures.
Other parts of the world also have similar establishments. One was set up in Sydney, Australia in 1878, for example. More tellingly, since 2000 both Malaysia and Singapore have set up official speakers' corners, presumably in an attempt to signal growing lenience and freedom. Earlier this year the BBC reported that a Tunisian speakers' corner was being convened after the overthrow of Ben Ali in January 2011.
Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park is listed in every guide book to London, a living landmark to a historical tradition. On Sunday there were visitors from every part of the globe, taking photos and recording speakers. But a number of the people I met there live in the capital: an articulate Pole arguing with the anti-immigration speaker; a man wearing a T-shirt with “Islam is the answer to racism” who was wary of my questions but said he came to clear up some myths about Islam; a 17-year-old “Irish-Indian” called Jamie from south London has his own YouTube channel and visits Hyde Park several times a year; an Egyptian man called Walid who spoke almost no English after two years in London but was videoing the proceedings.
Earlier this year Brian Haw, a long time peace campaigner, died. He did not go to Speakers' Corner, but set up residence in Parliament Square to protest against Britain's policies in Iraq. He stayed despite repeated attempts to move on him and his supporters. And a group is now pushing for a speakers' corner to be set up in Parliament Square, closer to the MPs' own talking shop. In an age when the internet and twitter make it so easy to get a message out, it is striking how powerful the sense still is that being able to engage in live debate and being present in person is important.
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Speakers’ Corner – Code of Conduct
Speakers’ Corners are public spaces over which a Speakers’ Corner Committees have no jurisdiction. Committees therefore cannot make (much less police) enforceable ‘rules’ – and may in any event consider that framing regulations about the conduct of free expression would be inappropriate.
The Lichfield Code of Conduct
It should also be remembered that citizens are already free to express themselves in any public place in the UK so long as they do so within the law. The same applies to Speakers’ Corners: citizens are entitled to express their opinions but have no greater rights there than anywhere else. In other words, they must abide by the law.
However, Speakers’ Corner Committees may wish to adopt brief Codes of Conduct as simple reminders to people using Speakers’ Corners of the need to behave considerately and cooperatively, within the spirit of the Speakers’ Corner initiative.
The model Code below is based on those adopted in Nottingham and Lichfield and used at the Speakers’ Corner which SCT and Central St Martins College of Art & Design created for the Marketplace of Ideas at the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression in Oslo in June 2009.
The Code and other advice to speakers can of course be adapted to meet local circumstances. For example, both Nottingham and Lichfield request that they do not use amplification as a courtesy to those who live or work close to the sites.
The Speakers’ Corner Model Code
Speakers’ Corner is your platform. You may use it to express any view, idea or opinion, so long as it is lawful. There are no rules but you are asked to observe the following code:
- Please don’t use offensive language
- Please respect alternative opinions
- Please show courtesy to other speakers and members of the public
- If others are waiting, please limit your time to a maximum of 10 minutes
Use this site to engage, inform and enrich opinion
– and wherever possible, entertain!