Can You Replicate London's Speakers' Corner?

Article excerpt

Peter Alexander extends his mini-stepladder and plonks it down on the rain-dampened pavement. He looks heavenward.

"I hope that's the last of the rain," he says. "Rain makes people take refuge in coffee shops."

He unravels a ball of string and ties homemade placards, laminated in rain-busting plastic, to his stepladder. One warns that the end of world is not only nigh, "it is happening RIGHT NOW."

Mr. Alexander has been coming to this corner of London's Hyde Park every Sunday for the past year. A video producer on weekdays and a "revealer of truths" weekends, he wants to alert people to the fact that "the world is ending as we speak."

He adds: "You can see it in the freak weather incidents, the wars in the Middle East, the credit crunch.... And all of this is being orchestrated."

By whom?

"By them." He nods in toward central London.

Anyone overhearing might half-expect to turn and see "Matrix"- style men in black and shades ready to haul him away in a van with no-number plates. But there is only a smattering of tourists and Londoners, umbrellas at the ready, listening to speeches on everything from Greek democracy to fast food to Armageddon.

The clouds spit down some drizzle, and Alexander observes seriously that even though the US government experiments with weather control "I don't think they'd deploy it just to keep me from speaking."

He ascends his stepladder, and starts speaking. Before long, 20 people have gathered, some listen intently, others heckle wildly.

* * *

Since it was set up in 1872, Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park has been one of the world's best-known forums for public debate - and public displays of intellectual eccentricity.

It's big day is Sunday,and the likes of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and George Orwell have come to listen. Intended as a space for free and open discussion, anyone can turn up and speak on any topic - so long as they don't swear excessively or incite hatred or violence. Police officers stroll through the corner every hour or so, to keep an eye - and an ear - on proceedings.

Now, a new charity - the Speakers' Corner Trust, whose founding patron is Vaclav Havel, the playwright and human rights activist who was the first president of the post-Communist Czech Republic - wants to breathe life back into civil society in Britain by setting up many more corner-style spaces where citizens can engage in face-to- face debate.

"Our aim is to get people exchanging ideas," says Peter Bradley, codirector of the trust.

"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."

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. …