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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Others, unlike Mr. Berling, are enjoying themselves. There's a debate about whether Hillary Clinton is ruining the Democrats' chances of presidential victory by staying in the primary campaign for so long. "We could do with public debate like this in Washington," says an American visitor in the audience.Skip to next paragraph
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"My view is that Speakers' Corner has been hijacked by eccentrics," says Dan Travis, founder of the Brighton Salon in Brighton, a bohemian enclave on the south coast of England with a large gay and lesbian community.
Mr. Travis, a sports educator by profession, set up the salon there last year to address people's "frustration with the smallness of public discussion today." He wanted a space where people could "debate the bigger issues of our time." It is modeled, he says, on the discussion salons that sprung up in Europe at the end of the 18th century and hosted "the great thinkers of the time: Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire." Travis believes that Speakers' Corner is too much of a "free-for-all."
He wants more structure: "People need time to consider the issues before entering a debate. Having a speaker deliver a talk and then take questions and points from the floor, where most of the audience members will have done some related reading beforehand ... [that] allows for a detailed examination of an issue."
Yet Peter Bradley insists that the new corners will indeed be different from Hyde Park. "The original corner is our inspiration, but it's not our model," he says. "That corner is a destination – people, especially tourists, travel there especially to witness something out of the ordinary. It is away from the hustle and bustle of everyday London, and it has become a kind of show.
"In contrast, the new corners, like the one in Nottingham, will be in the heart of city centers. So they will attract people going about their daily business. You can go there during your lunch break, or on your way to work; they will be part of our daily lives."
Mr. Bradley says the original Speakers' Corner still shows the value of "face-to-face debate."
"And in our era of 'virtual debate' – in online forums where many remain anonymous and sometimes become trite and offensive – that is worth celebrating. In face-to-face engagement, you have to account for your views; it can be a humanizing, civilizing, educating experience."
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The grey clouds have parted; the sun is peaking through. One of the most popular speakers of the day – a large, loud man wearing a hat with two red horns sticking out of it – won't give his name, "because I come here to say what I think, not for glory."
What's his take on creating more Corners?
"You know, Speakers' Corner is like a therapeutic institution," he says. "People come here to get validation for their views, or to let off steam. It isn't always pretty, but so what? If it helps people, that's cool."