Open-air free speech
The past, present and future of Speakers’ Corner
in The free speech wars
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With a particular focus on the origins of Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in the mid-nineteenth century, this chapter describes how individuals first carved out this enduring space for public speech and how, from the beginning, it included platforms advocating controversial political and religious opinions. The process of ‘creating’ Speakers’ Corner involved a complex relationship between the forces of authority (including government agencies) and the park’s users. It invited still-relevant questions about access, ownership and use of public space. Nineteenth-century governments vacillated between suppressing controversial speakers in Hyde Park or tolerating them as a form of democratic safety valve. Indeed, despite its popular image as a site of free speech, Speakers’ Corner has always been tightly controlled from above, whether tacitly through the belittling of what is said there, or explicitly through official regulation. In this regard, this chapter concludes that the key lesson from the history of Speakers’ Corner is not to focus on the preservation of the site in its current state, but to continue the struggle to protect individual rights to speak, listen and debate in public spaces.

The free speech wars

How did we get here and why does it matter?


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