Thursday , November 14 2019
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Speakers’ Corner still has free speech

Summary:
On October 14th, 1855, a carpenter set up a soapbox in Hyde Park, near Marble Arch in London, and made a speech to onlookers complaining abut high food prices. Thus was born the tradition that became known as Speakers' Corner, the place where free speech is exercised by anyone who wishes to. The place had a grimmer history, in that it was the site of the Tyburn Hanging Tree, where prisoners were hanged. Crowds would gather to be entertained by the spectacle, and it was the tradition that the condemned were allowed to address the crowd in a final speech. They would often argue with members of the crowd as they denounced the State, or the Church, or in some cases vainly protested their innocence.Following the Speakers' Corner tradition, the Chartists held mass protests there in the mid-19th

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On October 14th, 1855, a carpenter set up a soapbox in Hyde Park, near Marble Arch in London, and made a speech to onlookers complaining abut high food prices. Thus was born the tradition that became known as Speakers' Corner, the place where free speech is exercised by anyone who wishes to.

The place had a grimmer history, in that it was the site of the Tyburn Hanging Tree, where prisoners were hanged. Crowds would gather to be entertained by the spectacle, and it was the tradition that the condemned were allowed to address the crowd in a final speech. They would often argue with members of the crowd as they denounced the State, or the Church, or in some cases vainly protested their innocence.

Following the Speakers' Corner tradition, the Chartists held mass protests there in the mid-19th Century to demand the rights of working people, such as the right of assembly, and the Reform League held rallies there to demand the widening of the franchise. The government tried to suppress such marches by locking the park, but the crowds tore down hundreds of yards of railings to gain access. When 150,000 defied a further ban on meeting there, police and troops declined to intervene, and the Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole, resigned next day.

The Times editorialized in July 1866, that “it is against all reason and all justice that motley crowds from all parts of the metropolis should take possession of Hyde Park, and interfere with the enjoyments of those to whom the Park more particularly belongs”. The tradition had taken root, however, and in 1872 Parliament's Parks Regulation Act granted the Park Authorities the right to permit public meetings and Speakers’ Corner was formally established. There is no legal immunity from prosecution there, and the police reserve the right to act if laws are broken, but in practice they do not intervene unless complaints are made.

Writing in the 1940s, George Orwell called it "one of the minor wonders of the world," and said that he had listened there to "Indian nationalists, temperance reformers, Communists, Trotskyists, the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), the Catholic Evidence Society, freethinkers, vegetarians, Mormons, the Salvation Army, the Church Army, and a large variety of plain lunatics." More often than not the "plain lunatics" seem to be in the majority, and many who attend do so for the entertainment value.

It does, however, enshrine the very important freedom of speech that is one of the essential props of a liberal democracy. In the US it is written law as the First Amendment to the Constitution, but with a largely unwritten constitution in the UK, the right is proving harder to protect. We now have 'hate crimes' in the UK, where a punishable crime becomes deserving of a more severe sentence if motivated by hatred of the victim's race, religion or sexual orientation. This runs rather counter to the legal tradition that looked at the crime, not the criminal. Motivation is more difficult to establish than are observable events because there are no windows into the soul.

"Hate speech' is a disturbing idea. Of course it should be castigated and opposed, but there is a view that it should not be illegal and punishable by law. The liberal case is that while incitement to violence should of course be illegal, the expression of objectionable views is part of free speech. No less a threat to that free speech is the prevention of views regarded as objectionable by extra-legal means of suppression. Meetings are disrupted, sometimes by violence, sometimes by the use of threatened violence to bully authorities into denying a venue to speakers. Universities are becoming notorious for banning speakers who do not toe the woke line of politically correct and 'acceptable' views. They were once regarded as places of light, liberty and learning, but this is no longer the case. You can stand on a soapbox and say what you like at Speakers' Corner, but if you try to do that at most UK universities, people will stop you.

On this day as we celebrate 164 years of free speech in Hyde Park, we might do well to take steps that will ensure its survival elsewhere. Some have suggested that institutions that fail to protect it should not have access to public funds. It might be a start, but what is really needed is a culture change away from snowflakes who feel "unsafe" when they hear views they disagree with, and to a more robust readiness to allow controversial views to be aired, and refuted, and maybe ridiculed. Speakers' Corner does that very well.

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