On 25 November 2016 some 20 representatives of Speakers’ Corner projects around the country contributed to an exhilarating debate on free speech which took place in the Chamber of the House of Lords.
SCT, along with 38 Degrees, English PEN, Migrants Organise and Newham Sixth Form College, was one of a select group of organisations invited to work with the House of Lords and the English Speaking Union to organise the event. Each was given the opportunity to nominate representatives to join school students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the tenth of an annual series of debates which form a key feature of the House of Lords outreach programme.
The response from Speakers’ Corner projects was extraordinary with representatives from Brighton, Croydon, Lichfield, Lincoln, Medway and Sheffield participating in the event and no fewer than seven of them speaking in the debate.
The Free Speech Debate: Should there be limits to freedom of speech in the UK? focused on three particular propositions
- No limits: Speech should be as free as possible. The best counter to harmful speech is debate not censorship
- Monitor it: Speech shouldn’t be censored but the government should be allowed to monitor closely what people are saying and intervene if they need to for security reasons
- Censor it: We should be able to restrict or censor harmful voices or divisive figures from expressing views that aren’t consistent with our nation’s values
In a vote taken before proceedings got under way, 43% supported the first proposition, with 46% opting for the second and 11% for the third.
But after a two hour debate of the highest quality with passionate, principled and persuasive speeches on all sides of the question, a second vote revealed a decisive shift. 52% (up 9%) now supported the argument that free speech should be its own best defence, with 40% (down 6%) favouring some form of monitoring and 8% (down 3%) backing censorship.
The debate, chaired by the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler of Sutton Coldfield, was broadcast live on the House of Lords website and a video of the debate in full will be posted on YouTube. Subject to programming, it could also be screened on the BBC Parliament channel.
Three of the youngest Speakers’ Corner participants have also written about the event for national publications. Lauryn Mellor of South Staffordshire College has written for The Huffington Post while pieces by Ioulia Kaloudi, who also spoke in the debate, and Mahdi Choudury, both of Croydon College, will appear in Student Voice.
All participants will receive a certificate and letter from the Lord Speaker, a commemorative Hansard transcript of the debate and a pack of House of Lords public information resources.
Here’s what some of the Speakers’ Corner participants had to say after the event.
Vicky Seddon of Sheffield Speakers’ Corner:
“Brilliant to see so many young people addressing so eloquently the tricky issues this debate raised. And good to have that mixture of younger ones and some of us who have been around a bit longer, and seriously listening to each other”
Ioulia Kaloudi, a student from Croydon College
“It was an outstanding and invaluable experience to be in the House of lords and to be selected to be a floor speaker as I am now more able to put across my opinions in a more informed manner. It has been an honour to be selected to speak at this prestigious event tackling an issue that is of the greatest importance for young people on an international scale.”
Lauryn Mellor, a student at South Staffordshire College
“It was amazing to see so many young people so passionate about politics. The enthusiasm in the room was infectious. Hugely grateful to Speakers’ Corner Trust for the opportunity.”
Mark Taylor of Lichfield Speakers’ Corner
“The day was a wonderful opportunity to see, and experience to a limited extent, a part of our governmental system that many people do not get the chance to even visit except through the limited medium of television. We were also able to take part in a stimulating and interesting debate and see how, through debate, opinions can change when a subject is examined in depth.”
Vicky, Ioulia and Mark all spoke in the debate. Also speaking were (below in clockwork order from the top left) Natasha Steer of Medway Speakers’ Corner, Stella Fasusi of Croydon Speakers’ Corner, Gareth Shephard of Independent Lives representing Brighton & Hove Speakers’ Corner, and Nero Ughwujabo also of Croydon Speakers’ Corner.