Can you replicate London's Speakers' Corner?
England moves to create more of the free-speech 'corners' – with a little less spectacle and a little more substance.
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"Rights are like muscles," he says. "If you don't exercise them, they become weak and flabby. And British people are not exercising their right to free speech. It's the mark of democracy to have active debate – and we want to encourage people to discuss the big issues with each other."Skip to next paragraph
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The trust tested a new Speakers' Corner in Nottingham, England, earlier this year. Mr. Bradley says it generated "excellent debate about politics, climate change, family life." A space is being paved and landscaped for a permanent Speakers' Corner in Nottingham's historic Market Square. It's set to open for the business of loud and rowdy debate in the autumn.
The founding of the original Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park is intimately bound with the birth of free speech and democracy in Britain. In 1866, the Reform League – which campaigned for the right of all men to vote, rather than just the posh and privileged – organized a public meeting in Hyde Park. Thousands turned up, broke through a 1,700-man police blockade, and took over the north-east corner of the park where they held impassioned discussions. This led to deliberation in Parliament about the right to free speech in Hyde Park – and in 1872, the Royal Parks and Gardens Regulation Act was passed, giving over that park corner to public speaking.
But in recent years, Speakers' Corner has been more zany than serious. Tourists turn up to gawk in wide-eyed amusement at a lineup of eccentric speakers. Can the corner really be a model for re-energizing "active debate" about "big issues?"
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The drizzle has eased. Kirkley Greenwell, a young Christian woman from Baltimore, Md., who lives in London, is debating with an Islamic speaker who is perched on a wooden crate. He's arguing that the gnostic gospels should be included in the Christian canon; she argues articulately against it. "They say that women must become men to enter the Kingdom of God – and that's nonsense!" she says with righteous fury. The speaker seems lost for words.
"I like coming to Speakers' Corner," Ms. Greenwell says. "I wouldn't say it is enlightening, but it is certainly stimulating. I've heard debates on Africa, junk food, the monarchy, socialism, everything. And usually I get involved."
Isaac Berling, a college student on holiday from Minnesota, is less impressed: "It's more preachy than I thought it would be. The speakers are holding forth, but the audience is holding back. Except for that drunk guy." He points to a man hysterically heckling an unfortunate speaker.