“In major cities, it may be appropriate to designate defined public spaces as Speakers’ Corners both as landmark symbols of our freedoms and as actual forums for debate and exchange. The significance of creating such civic spaces should not be underestimated. In some places they could become a powerful focus not only for local democracy, but also of civic identity and pride. Moreover, they will provide platforms for the purest and most spontaneous expression of the right to speak freely, within the law, and to attract and engage an audience of fellow citizens.”
Speakers’ Corner Trust, Developing the UK Model
Speakers’ Corners as civic spaces have very considerable symbolic as well as actual value. They not only represent the rights of citizens to free expression and assembly but also provide a platform for the exercise of those freedoms.
But in planning and managing Speakers’ Corners it is important to recognise that freedoms are not absolute and that when different rights or the rights of different people compete, or occasionally conflict, balances have to be struck.
Indeed, the basis for our law is that each citizen’s exercise of freedom should so far as possible be compatible with that of others. Every law regulates an individual’s freedom of action in order to preserve a collective public interest. In the context of freedom of expression, long-established laws against defamation and more recent legislation on incitement to hatred or violence, while clearly constraining an absolute right to free speech, do so in order to protect innocent citizens from its harmful consequences.
So the law already limits what an individual citizen may say in public at a Speakers’ Corner or in any other setting. The same principle – that in exercising their own rights, citizens should recognise their responsibility to others – also applies in the design and management of Speakers’ Corners as public spaces so that they serve the needs of the community as a whole rather than simply a minority within it.
‘Managing’ free expression is a difficult concept but it is important to recognise that creating Speakers’ Corners does not create new rights to self expression but simply new opportunities and platforms for it. If the potential of those opportunities is to be fulfilled with the minimum conflict with other citizen’s rights, a certain amount of sensible, sensitive management may be required.
SCT therefore recommends that each local Speakers’ Corner Committee (SCC), in consultation with the local authority, police and others, should consider the drafting of its own limited list of protocols through which to guide the development and use of its Speakers’ Corner.
Some of those protocols, so long as they are well known, will simply rely on the commonsense and goodwill of those who either speak or listen at a Speakers’ Corner. Others may require more active cooperation. A few, from time to time, may require stewarding or policing.
But in considering the development of protocols, SCCs should focus principally on two issues: how to ensure that their Speakers’ Corner integrates successfully with other uses and activities in its vicinity and how to provide everyone who wishes to use it with a fair opportunity to do so. They should not be tempted to regulate who speaks or what they say.
Every citizen has an equal right to express their views at a Speakers’ Corner, or elsewhere for that matter, so long as they do so within the law. No-one should be excluded because their views are considered by some or even by a majority to be in some way distasteful. If other citizens are offended by what speakers say, they have the right, perhaps even a duty, to contest it. There cannot be a freedom for some but not for others. Inevitably the right to free expression demands the responsibility of tolerance.
If a Speakers’ Corner, particularly in a busy city centre location, is to co-exist successfully with other uses and users and if it is to provide a genuine forum for expression and debate accessible to all, a series of careful, proportionate and sensitive balances may have to be struck and, where necessary, reflected in the SCC’s protocols.
SCT has advised, in its note on its UK Programme, that “Speakers’ Corners should ideally be established in prominent and accessible locations in town and city centres where speakers can be heard and seen, where they have the chance of engaging the interest of their fellow citizens as they go about their daily business and where crowds of a reasonable size can gather safely without infringing the rights or interests of others”.
As a rule, SCT favours the adoption of city centre sites. Although they are likely to offer greater challenges in their design and management, sites around which people naturally circulate as they go about their daily business and at which they can be spontaneously attracted and engaged most fully realises the Speakers’ Corner initiative’s aim to promote free expression and exchange among citizens as a feature of civil life.
There is a case for the siting of Speakers’ Corners in out of centre locations, for example in local parks. Indeed, they may offer the distinct advantage of providing sufficient space for the holding of demonstrations and rallies without unduly disrupting other city centre activities. But, despite these obvious attractions, such sites are also likely to become destinations for the active, motivated and organised rather than forums for all citizens. Indeed, the original Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park in London, while self-contained, flexible and manageable, is also relatively isolated and has become more of a tourist destination than a place for genuine or spontaneous civil engagement.
Ultimately, identifying the best site for a Speakers’ Corner will be the responsibility of the local Speakers’ Corner Committee, working closely with the local authority, the police and others. In any assessment of options, they will be mindful that Section 17 of the Crime & Disorder Act 1998 requires “local authorities, police authorities and other agencies to consider crime and disorder reduction and community safety in the exercise of all their duties and activities”.
It should be noted that the police will generally favour city centre locations covered by CCTV which reduces the need for physical policing.
If there is significant pedestrian flow around the site, it is likely that there are other places in the immediate vicinity where people work, shop or relax.
If the local authority has sanctioned or in principle supports the establishment of a Speakers Corner on such a site, it will have satisfied itself that its use conforms to the Section 17 requirements. But other issues should also be considered.
Retailers and service providers may welcome new initiatives which enhance the city centre’s attraction to potential customers. But they will also wish to ensure that the Speakers’ Corner does not interfere with trade and in particular with access to their premises. They and other employers will also want reassurance that their staff can work comfortably without distraction. Similarly, people in restaurants or in places of entertainment, including theatres, will want to enjoy their leisure without intrusive disturbance.
In such locations, depending on local conditions, it may be desirable to
- limit the use of amplification either at all times or during certain hours
- restrict the numbers gathering at the Speakers’ Corner at certain times
- require that crowds attracted to organised events are properly stewarded by volunteers.
Most city centre sites will be limited in capacity and, it follows, restricted as to the kind and scale of activities they can safely accommodate. Some may provide suitable venues for mass meetings, rallies or demonstrations but many, perhaps most, will not. In the majority of cases, more appropriate venues will exist and be well known.
But in public spaces of limited size, it may be necessary to
- agree with event organisers that they will not seek to attract attendances in excess of the numbers regarded as suitable for the site and that if those numbers are exceeded, that the event will be suspended until it is considered safe to proceed.
Other Public Events
In some town or city centres, the Speakers’ Corner might share a general location, for example a civic square, with other regular or occasional uses.
In such circumstances, the size of the crowd which a Speakers’ Corner may safely attract may vary according to whether the square is also hosting, for example, a market, an open air concert, a play or, indeed, a public meeting.
In such cases, it may be necessary to
- limit or suspend normal activities at a Speakers’ Corner, though in such cases it is important that adequate public notice is given.
Access and Equity
An SCC’s protocols should be designed not only to manage the Speakers’ Corner as a civic space but also to provide for equity among those who wish to make use of it.
At Hyde Park Corner, the available space enables several speakers to set up their own pitches and speak simultaneously. On sites where that is not possible, it may be necessary to develop a convention that, when there is competition for the platform, speakers must give way after a prescribed period of time.
SCC protocols may therefore include provisions about
- the number of those able to speak at the site at the same time
- the length of time any one speaker can occupy the platform when others wish to speak either on the same or another issue.
Codes of Conduct
SCCs should not seek to be prescriptive about what is said at a Speakers’ Corner. That does not mean, however, that they should not seek to establish conventions about conduct at them.
In its guidance note on Organising Speakers’ Corner Events, SCT sets out the principles which should inform all Speakers’ Corner events, namely that they should
- be attractive and accessible to all
- be strictly non-adversarial and non-partisan
- provide all participants with an equal opportunity to express their views, within the law, and respect diversity of opinion
- be conducted calmly and without rancour
- seek common ground rather than confrontation
- aim to engage, inform and enrich opinion and, wherever possible, entertain.
Clearly, not all those requirements can (or should) be fulfilled if Speakers’ Corners as public spaces are to function as open platforms for spontaneous expression. But it is not unreasonable to ask speakers to conform to a limited set of standards so as to avoid causing gratuitous offence to fellow citizens.
SCCs may therefore wish to consider
- drawing up and publishing codes of conduct which offer guidance to speakers on, for example,
- the use of offensive language
- respect for alternative opinion
- courtesy to other speakers and members of the public, including hecklers.
SCT has developed a model Code of Conduct which may serve as a useful template.
Some individuals or organisations may devote considerable energy to preparing the case they wish to promote at the local Speakers’ Corner. They should be able to ‘book’ a slot which can be advertised in advance both in order to attract attendance and as a means of informing other potential speakers that, for a limited period, the Speakers’ Corner will be occupied. As the Speakers’ Corner Committee does not own and cannot formally regulate the site, any booking system will rely on a general spirit of cooperation and goodwill.
Moreover, particularly early in the life of a Speakers’ Corner, SCCs themselves may wish to organise events which will help to attract public interest, demonstrate the positive contribution which it can make to civic life and stimulate others to make use of it.
In such cases, they may wish to draw up diverse programmes by actively encouraging other local organisations, lobbies, interest groups and campaigns to apply for slots for their own events.
SCCs may therefore wish to consider whether, when and how to provide and promote
- regular, well publicised slots which can be booked in advance by individuals and organisations.
Clearly, such provision would require a degree of coordination. If, as will be likely in many cases, the SCC does not have a dedicated administrator, it may be desirable for it to secure support from the local authority or some other body in managing and publicising event schedules and, where necessary, ensuring that other relevant agencies, including the police, are notified of them.
With regard to events organised by third parties, SCCs may wish to consider requiring them to
- abide by any guidelines and codes of conduct it establishes
- provide their own event stewarding.
Policing the Protocols
Over time it is to be anticipated that experience and the development and sharing of best practice, alongside the SCC’s protocols, will help develop a successful modus operandi for individual Speakers’ Corners.
However, it is important that where such convention fails and as a result the rights or legitimate interests of others are infringed, decisive action can be taken.
It may be that police officers and, where they are available, Community Support Officers, could be trained so that they are able to interpret the SCC’s protocols as well as taking whatever enforcement action may be necessary to ensure that Speakers’ Corners function successfully and safely within the law. But it is antincipated that a police presence will not normally be required at a Speakers’ Corner.