In 2004, Euan Edworthy, a young British businessman based in Prague, conceived the idea of developing a Speakers’ Corner there as his contribution to the burgeoning civil life of the new Czech republic. He initially sought advice from Peter Bradley, then MP for The Wrekin, and they agreed three central objectives for the initiative, namely to
- secure and underpin a sustainable commitment from the Czech Government to the principles of free speech and public assembly
- create a new landmark in the Czech capital which could become a focus for and symbol of the country’s developing democracy
- promote freedom of speech and grass-roots democratic values and rights among the Czech people.
Peter Bradley discussed the plans with the Foreign Secretary, then Jack Straw, and the Europe Minister, then Denis MacShane, and with their endorsement and the support of the British Ambassador in Prague, Euan Edworthy secured the backing of the Czech Government, the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Prague and a wide range of leading representatives of Czech public life.
The initiative quickly captured the imagination of many of those who had campaigned for democracy in the former Czechoslovakia. The chair of the Green Party, Jakub Patocka represented a broad consensus when he acknowledged that “a new generation of Czechs is growing up, and we are ready for a Speakers’ Corner”. His view was echoed by Peter Uhl, the Czech Government’s Human Rights Commissioner and former Communist era dissident, who declared that “Czech society requires a Speakers’ Corner. People should be able to express themselves and learn to listen to each other”. The leading actress and civil rights campaigner Vlasta Chramastova acknowledged that “the fact that such a thing can spring up here is a step forward for Czech democracy.”
Within months, Prague’s city authorities had identified a prominent site on Palackeho namesti at the foot of the monument to Frantisek Palacky, the nineteenth century nationalist widely regarded as the father of the Czech nation. Then, in itself a major breakthrough, the City Council passed landmark legislation to allow freedom of assembly at the site without prior or official permission.
On 17 November, the fifteenth anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution, Prague’s Speakers’ Corner was inaugurated at a ceremony attended by the Czech Foreign Minister, Britain’s Minister for Europe, representatives of Czech politics, press, arts and letters and over a thousand members of the public. Many of the speakers there reflected on the significance of the event:
“The biggest danger to democracy is indifference and those who want to restrict it count on this. Prague Speakers’ Corner is proof that people are not indifferent.”
Crril Svoboda, Czech Foreign Minister
“There is hardly a more symbolic moment and a more appropriate time to open the Prague Speakers’ Corner than the day of the fifteenth anniversary of the November revolution when we jointly fought for our freedom and democracy.”
Pavel Bem, Mayor of Prague
“Today, the Czech Republic looks to a brighter future in the European Union… The opening of Prague’s Speakers’ Corner is a symbol of freedom. Speakers’ Corner represents Britain’s love of debate and free speech. I congratulate Prague on importing this unique British contribution to European culture.”
Denis MacShane MP, UK Minister for Europe
In a few short years, the Prague Speakers‘ Corner has become a Czech institution and a regular focus for meetings and demonstrations as well as a platform for protest, discussion and debate.