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A Speakers' Corner is an area where open-air public speaking, debate and discussion are allowed. The original and most noted is in the north-east corner of Hyde Park in London, United Kingdom, the site of the Tyburn gallows used for public executions. Speakers there may talk on any subject, as long as the police consider their speeches lawful, although this right is not restricted to Speakers' Corner only. Contrary to popular belief, there is no immunity from the law, nor are any subjects proscribed, but in practice the police tend to be tolerant and therefore intervene only when they receive a complaint or if they hear profanity.
Historically there were a number of other areas designated as Speakers' Corners in other parks in London (e.g., Finsbury Park, Clapham Common, Kennington Park and Victoria Park). More recently they have been set up in other British cities, and there are also Speakers' Corners in other countries.
Though Hyde Park Speakers' Corner is considered the paved area closest to Marble Arch, legally the public speaking area extends beyond the Reform Tree and covers a large area from Marble Arch to Victoria Gate, then along the Serpentine to Hyde Park Corner and the Broad Walk running from Hyde Park Corner to Marble Arch.
Public riots broke out in the park in 1855, in protest over the Sunday Trading Bill, which forbade buying and selling on a Sunday, the only day working people had off. The riots were described by Karl Marx as the beginning of the English revolution.
The Chartist movement used Hyde Park as a point of assembly for workers' protests, but no permanent speaking location was established. The Reform League organised a massive demonstration in 1866 and then again in 1867, which compelled the government to extend the franchise to include most working-class men.
The riots and agitation for democratic reform encouraged some to force the issue of the "right to speak" in Hyde Park. The Parks Regulation Act 1872 delegated the issue of permitting public meetings to the park authorities (rather than central government). Contrary to popular belief, it does not confer a statutory basis for the right to speak at Speakers' Corner. Parliamentary debates on the Act illustrate that a general principle of being able to meet and speak was not the intention, but that some areas would be permitted to be used for that purpose.
Since that time, it has become a traditional site for public speeches and debate, as well as the main site of protest and assembly in Britain. There are some who contend that the tradition has a connection with the Tyburn gallows, where the condemned man was allowed to speak before being hanged.
Although many of its regular speakers are non-mainstream, Speakers' Corner was frequented by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, C. L. R. James, Walter Rodney, Ben Tillett, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah and William Morris. Its existence is frequently upheld as a demonstration of free speech, as anyone can turn up unannounced and talk on almost any subject, although always at the risk of being heckled by regulars. Lord Justice Sedley, in his decision regarding Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions (1999), described Speakers' Corner as demonstrating "the tolerance which is both extended by the law to opinion of every kind and expected by the law in the conduct of those who disagree, even strongly, with what they hear." The ruling famously established in English case law that freedom of speech could not be limited to the inoffensive but extended also to "the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative, as long as such speech did not tend to provoke violence", and that the right to free speech accorded by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights also accorded the right to be offensive. Prior to the ruling, prohibited speech at Speakers' Corner included obscenity, blasphemy, insulting the queen, or inciting a breach of the peace.
In the late 19th century, for instance, a combination of park by-laws, use of the Highways Acts and use of venue licensing powers of the London County Council made it one of the few places where socialist speakers could meet and debate.
The following organisations and individuals, listed here in chronological order, have (had) a well-established history of speaking regularly in Hyde Park.
The first official Speakers' Corner outside of London opened in Nottingham in 2009. It was officially inaugurated by Jack Straw, the UK Justice Secretary, on 22 February 2009. The designated space occupied a new landscaped extension to the city's Old Market Square, at the junction of King Street and Queen Street. The large paved space includes the new statue of Brian Clough, the former manager of Derby County and Nottingham Forest, who forged ties between the two cities which were famous for local rivalry.
Leeds is known to have its own Speakers' Corner, at Victoria Gardens on The Headrow, in front of the Leeds City Art Gallery, Central Library and Henry Moore Sculpture Centre building. It is a pivotal point in Leeds for justice and anti-war marches, most of which gather and terminate here, as well as for war memorial services due to the location of Leeds's Municipal Cenotaph.
The Sussex coastal town of Worthing has had its own Speakers' Corner at Splash Point on the town's seafront since the Victorian era. A sign today marks the "stand for delivering sermons and public speeches", while another sign close by marks the site by the old Fish Market where the Salvation Army has preached the Gospel since 1886. The Speakers' Corner fell into disuse in the late 20th century and is now being reinstated. As part of the Government's Sea Change programme, being run by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, the area will benefit from a £500,000 grant to re-landscape the area around Splash Point and see a revival of the Speakers' Corner. Speakers' corner comprises a dais accessible by steps and a ramp providing a platform from which speakers address the crowd or passers by. It is due for completion by October 2010.
There is a Speakers' Corner in the Domain in Sydney, established in 1878. The speakers talk every Sunday afternoon from 2 pm until 5 pm, and have a website. Official outdoor 'free' speech first appeared in the hustings and hanging grounds of Hyde Park Sydney in 1874. Free speech in this form was banned following a serious riot between Catholics and Orangemen. However, following the formalisation of free speech in Speakers' Corner in London it was decided in 1878 that The Domain would be the place for free speech in Sydney. Other Speakers' Corners are found in King George Square and The Powerhouse in Brisbane. In Melbourne, Speakers' Corner was originally held in Birrarung Marr where the original site is still visible. This site has lost some popularity over the years and Speakers' Corner (Now called "Speakers' Forum") is currently held outside the State Library of Victoria on Sunday afternoon from 3 pm.
Dedicated by the Earl Mountbatten on 12 April 1966, Speakers' Corner in Regina, Saskatchewan is located on the north shore of Wascana Lake. It serves as a constant reminder of the notion of free speech and assembly and a tribute to Saskatchewan people who have upheld that heritage. The two lanterns framing the south entrance to the main plaza formed part of the Cumberland Screen at the entrance to Speakers' Corner in London. The podia on the main plaza are from the exterior columns of the Old City Hall (1908–1965) and symbolise free speech in democracy at the municipal level of government. Six paper birch trees were taken from Runnymede Meadow in Windsor Great Park, near Windsor Castle. It was there that King John signed the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215. The ten gas lamps surrounding the corner come from King Charles Street which runs from Whitehall to St. James Park, London, near the Houses of Parliament. They were erected in 1908 during the reign of Edward VII, whose royal cypher E.R. VII appears on the base of each lamp.
Kitchener, Ontario has a small area designated as Speakers' Corner on the northwest corner of King and Frederick Streets. It existed already since the mid-1980s.
The first Speakers' Square in Malaysia was established at the Padang Kota Lama (Esplanade) Penang on 4 May 2010. It is opened for the public to speak on Wednesday and Sunday (6.00 pm to 10.00 pm). The first speaker was Mr Tan Seng Hai who shared his views on preventing Ascot Sports Sdn. Bhd. from conducting betting activities in the Penang state:
"No religion in the world encourages betting and gambling and yet, the Federal Government has given out a betting license... Rampant illegal betting was not a good enough reason to legalise sports betting in the country. We have prostitution and people taking drugs. Does that mean we should legalise brothels and drug trafficking?"
Conditions for use of Speakers' Square
In the Netherlands, there is a permanently designated speakers' corner called the Spreeksteen in Amsterdam. Lawfully, every person has the freedom of speech as a matter of right. In practice, there is considerable ambiguity which gives mayors and other authorities the semi-lawful powers to prevent or distort free speech. The 'Spreeksteen' is open for free speech 24-hours a day, and was established to allow complete free speech. The 'Spreeksteen' has been located in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam since 5 May 2005, and has been erected by a citizens action after the brutal murder of film-maker and columnist Theo van Gogh. Plans for bringing the Amsterdam Speakers' Corner online with a permanent camera and microphone are in a phase of installation. In the meantime the speakers are filmed with a hand-held camera.
The Spreeksteen was involved in controversy when they allowed Michiel Smit, a far-right activist, to speak on 1 October 2006. Antifascist demonstrators used noise to prevent Smit from being heard (as happens often when there is a public demonstration of the far-right). René Danen, a former council member, threatened the Spreeksteen foundation with criminal prosecution if they let Smit speak again. Smit was scheduled to speak at the Spreeksteen again on 5 November 2006.
The Speakers' Corner in Singapore was opened on 1 September 2000, to allow Singapore citizens to speak freely. They are exempted from the need to obtain a police permit so long as they meet the terms and conditions of use.
The Speakers' Corner is located in Hong Lim Park, a popular venue for many election rallies and political speeches in the 1950s and '60s. Hong Lim Park is centrally located, well-served by public transport and is sited in a high public density area.
In 2004, public exhibitions and performances were added to the list of exempted activities at the Speakers' Corner.
From 1 September 2008, Singapore citizens can also organise or participate in demonstrations at Speakers' Corner without having to obtain a police permit. With this latest change in policy to allow the venue to be used freely as an outdoor demonstration site, coupled with the liberalisation on the use of sound amplification and the extension of operating hours of the venue, the Speakers' Corner aims to address the genuine desire by some Singaporeans for lawful outdoor demonstrations and processions as a means of political expression.
Singapore citizens who wish to hold a speech, exhibition/performance or demonstration at the Speakers' Corner can register with the National Parks Board, which manages Hong Lim Park. Online registration is available on the website.
Woodford Square in Port of Spain, Trinidad, is also known as "The University of Woodford Square", so named by the first prime minister of Trinidad Eric Williams who gave many speeches here. Another nickname, "People's Parliament", comes from the Black Power movement of the 1970s. Flanked by Trinidad's Parliament and Halls of Justice the Square still plays host to speeches of a highly topical and political nature.
In the southeast corner of the square, a blackboard lists the day's discussion as well as other important information. The speakers' topics are divided by interest and known as "classes".
An area was set up in Bangkok in the 1930s, and quickly became known as Hyde Park, to enable freedom of speech and the airing of political views in Thailand. The area was shut down after student rioting and the lethal intervention of the army and it is not discussed openly today.
In 1955, Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram had visited London as part of an international tour. He became impressed with the 'Speakers' Corner' in Hyde Park. Upon his return to Thailand a 'Hyde Park' space for free speech and assembly was instituted at the Phramane Grounds in Bangkok. The experiment was well received and effectively stimulated political debate. The experiment was not appreciated by the government though, and in February 1956 restrictions were imposed on the Phramane 'Hyde Park'. However, during this period the Hyde Park Movement Party had evolved, upholding the legacy of the Hyde Park experiment.
As a result of winter semesters visits to England and Hyde Park, Elon College (now known as Elon University) created a Speakers' Corner on campus. No persons from outside the university may speak without a permit. Students are free to speak at any time as long as they don't use amplification, do not disrupt others, do not damage property (including the lawn itself) and do not cause dangerous conditions (stakes may not be planted in the ground without the approval of Physical Plant due to electrical/water lines, etc.).
See also Washington Square Park (Chicago) regarding the history of Bughouse Square in Chicago, known as a freespeech site from the 1910s to the 1960s.
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