- Speakers Corner Trust - https://www.speakerscornertrust.org -

SCT’s International Programme

This page outlines the rationale for SCT’s international programme.

Why Speakers’ Corners?

Freedom of expression and the right of assembly lie at the heart of all civil liberties. They are the aspiration of those who struggle for freedom and the prize of those who have achieved it.

They are the freedoms which democratic societies most cherish and oppressive regimes most fear. They provide the basis for relations among citizens and between them and their governments. Through the rights to diversity, dissent and debate which they guarantee, they are the means by which societies develop and progress.

Almost 150 years after it was established in London, the original Speakers’ Corner and the rights it represents are largely taken for granted in Britain. But well beyond the UK it remains a hugely potent symbol and a place of pilgrimage both for those who aspire to freedoms which are denied them and to those who are already building democratic institutions of their own.

SCT believes that Speakers’ Corners could play a significant role in embedding key civil rights in developing democracies and in providing a forum for the public debate which is vital to the health and progress of their societies.

SCT seeks through its international programme to work with civil society, public authorities and the private sector in carefully selected candidate countries to

While there is considerable scope for interplay between the project and the internet, it is a central feature of the Speakers’ Corner initiative that the debate which it promotes should be unmediated and face-to-face.

The internet provides unparalleled access to information and communication. It can educate, enlighten and enfranchise – and, particularly in societies in which freedom of expression and assembly are suppressed, it can be a powerful liberating force. But it has limitations too. As well as engaging people in genuine interaction, it can also detach them from it. It can offer a wide diversity of information and opinion but cannot guarantee that we will seek or find it.

It can provide the opportunity for debate but the anonymity of email can also undermine the accountability which is essential to genuine dialogue. It may make citizens feel that they have engaged with the democratic process but in fact their activity may have been a substitute for it.

SCT believes it is vital to bring people into contact with each other to express, test and develop their opinions and those of their neighbours and the opinion formers and decision takers among them in real places, in real time and with a real prospect of enhancing the understanding, tolerance and capacity for consensus which underpin vibrant communities and successful societies.

The Prague Prototype

SCT’s international programme has its origins in the successful development in Prague in 2004 of the first Speakers’ Corner on mainland Europe.

Its inauguration, which marked the fifteenth anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution, drew representatives from the whole of Czech civil society including Government Ministers (and the UK’s Europe Minister), former dissidents and political prisoners, writers, artists, jurists, journalists and over 1,000 members of the public.

Their presence reflected a consensus about the symbolic importance of the new Speakers’ Corner in the development of democracy in the Czech Republic:

It is that shared sense of achievement in the development of democratic institutions, that formal and very public commitment to civil liberties on the part of the national and civic authorities, that embracing of the opportunity for diversity, debate and civic engagement and that spirit of optimism which SCT seeks to replicate elsewhere.

The Speakers’ Corner Models

SCT seeks in its international programme to establish landmark public spaces in major cities at which the right to free speech and assembly is guaranteed.

In some settings, mobile Speakers’ Corners may provide a more appropriate vehicle. However, whether or not a space is designated, the initiative will feature a rolling schedule of events determined, within guidelines, by steering committees (Speakers’ Corner Committees ) made up of leading representatives of civil society (please see below), working with but independent of both public authorities and other sectors and interests.

The Educational Programme

SCT, in collaboration with Stephen Coleman, Professor of Political Communication at the University of Leeds, and supported by the BAFTA-winning creative agency Bold Creative is working on an exciting new project to develop innovative, web-based resources to support citizenship learning and teaching.

Expressing Citizenship, generously funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, will develop attractive and accessible educational resources to help young people improve their speaking and listening skills and overcome the lack of experience and confidence which prevents so many from expressing their ideas and opinions and engaging with community and civic life.

Two sets of resources – a web-based animation aimed principally at young people and a related series of written guides for teachers and youth leaders – will focus on three core needs among young people:

It will be undertaken over nine months, probably starting in September 2011, and based on work with four groups of young people in West Yorkshire to

It is hoped that, in due course, it might be possible to adapt the resources for use outside the UK.

SCT/UoL’s proposals are set out in more detail in  Expressing Citizenship – A Project Summary.

Speakers’ Corner as a Public Place

It is intended that Speakers’ Corners in major cities should be formally designated as public spaces, both as landmark symbols of citizens’ rights and freedoms and as actual forums for debate and exchange.

They should be established in prominent and accessible locations where speakers can be heard and seen, where they can attract and engage their fellow citizens as they go about the daily lives and where people can gather safely without infringing the rights and interests of others.

They should also be protected by law (as was the case in Prague). The Government’s and/or civic authority’s statutory guarantee of the legal and civic status of a Speakers’ Corner will itself represent an important public commitment to citizens’ rights.

Creating such civic spaces will be important in other ways. In some places they could become a powerful focus not only for citizens’ rights, 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 as a Public Programme

However, the designation of a public space will not in itself deliver the project’s objectives. Speakers’ Corners, after an initial flurry of interest and activity, would quickly fall into disuse if not misuse.

In all cases, a sustained schedule of events supported by a programme of civic education will constitute a key feature of the project.

The Speakers’ Corner Committees will draw up rolling programmes of events at the Speakers’ Corner itself and in range of other public meeting places such as town halls and community centres or schools and places of work or worship, designed to reach as many sectors of society as available resources allow.

Events might include, for example,

They could also serve a number of different functions, for example for

The central uniting principle in all these events is that they are accessible to all, strictly non-adversarial and non-partisan, welcome diversity and seek to engage, inform and enrich opinion.

Speakers’ Corners Committees

The success of individual Speakers’ Corners will depend to a large extent on their local ownership and stewardship.

SCT will help to establish and, subject to the availability of local sponsorship, part-fund each national Speakers’ Corner Committee which will take responsibility for

Each national Speakers’ Corner Committee, which might typically include representatives of the civic authority, local universities, schools and colleges, faith groups, the media, the legal professions, the political parties and the business and voluntary sectors, would work with SCT to establish its own initiative and, having done so, take overall responsibility for its programme. Over time, it is hoped that founding national Committees will be able to establish and coordinate networks of Speakers’ Corners in cities and towns beyond the capital, each run by a local committee.

The committee would also be responsible for providing moderators of debates and for overseeing the rules of engagement, the Speakers’ Corner Principles .

Joined Up Debate

As suggested above, the Speakers’ Corner project is intended to complement rather than compete with the internet. Indeed, the web could have an important role to play in stimulating face to face debate and then encouraging and enabling participants to pursue the issues raised across the internet.

SCT’s website

National Speakers’ Corner Committees will be encouraged to establish their own websites which might typically

It might also offer opportunities for third parties, including public authorities or services as well as political, faith and interest groups, to facilitate debates and consultations and provide resources and links for participants both before and after a Speakers’ Corner event has taken place.

Speakers’ Corner Principles

It will be important to allow as much autonomy as possible to local Speakers’ Corner Committees. However, SCT’s model set rules of engagement provide guidance on the conduct of debates according to a set of core principles, namely that they should

Guidance is also designed to ensure that all those wishing to participate in a debate have a fair opportunity to do so, including advice on

Identifying Candidate Countries

The success of SCT’s international programme will depend on the careful identification of candidate countries.

SCT takes advice from UK Government departments and representatives overseas, from the network of NGOs and think tanks with which it has formed a consultative relationship and with organisations and individuals in the countries themselves.

However, it is important to recognise both the scope and the limits of the Speakers’ Corner initiative. SCT is not a campaigning organisation in the mould of Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. It is not its role to press for rights where there they are denied or where there is little prospect of their being made available or sustainable.

SCT will not therefore seek to promote a Speakers’ Corner where

On the other hand, while SCT can see value in promoting projects in mature democracies, they will not constitute a principal target. Rather, SCT will seek to work in countries where it can play a role in advancing or consolidating the development of citizens’ rights and democratic institutions.

SCT’s priority is to develop Speakers’ Corners where they can

The Importance of Risk

However, SCT recognises that, if its work is not accompanied by at least an element of risk, it is unlikely to make a worthwhile impact.

Indeed, it will normally be a prerequisite of the success of each Speakers’ Corner that there is acceptance by

In considering candidate countries, negotiating with public authorities and designing its projects, SCT will do all it can to minimise these risks. But SCT is also conscious that opportunities for progress are inevitably accompanied by risks. The key issue for SCT will be whether the prospect for advancing democratic rights and participation outweighs them.

SCT’s Role

SCT’s role is to

The reputation, integrity, commitment and resourcefulness of the national Committees which steer the development of individual Speakers’ Corners will be crucial to their success.

They must be able to

A vital task for SCT will be the recruitment of the key advocate around whom the committee can coalesce. He/she must be a widely respected individual with a reputation for impartiality, the capacity to unite different and often competing interests and access to and influence with key decision takers.

SCT must be able to identify, guide and support such an individual in promoting the Speakers’ Corner initiative, in recruiting other suitable candidates to the organising committee and in attracting the support of potential private sector sponsors.

Wherever possible, SCT will seek the advice and active involvement of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and NGOs as well as Embassies or High Commissions and British Council offices in the relevant countries in the planning of any national initiative.

SCT has undertaken a highly successful consultation which has revealed widespread and enthusiastic support for the Speakers’ Corner concept.

There is a strong consensus that engagement, exchange and debate between citizens is a civilising, moderating and enriching experience and one which is essential to the resolving of differences, the building of consensus and the development and maintenance of vibrant and healthy civil societies.

That is what the Speakers’ Corner project seeks to achieve.

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