Speakers’ trust spouts off on going global
More than two years after London’s renowned Speakers’ Corner public speaking area was replicated outside the U.K., the ‘Czech Hyde Park’ site is now at the heart of a worldwide enterprise aimed at fostering freedom of speech. Politicians and businesses are latching on to the initiative.
The project was originally spawned three years ago by Brit Euan Edworthy, head of PR agency Best Communications Group, who – after a decade of living here – wanted to give Prague a gift. Representatives of the British and Czech governments supported the proposal and on Nov. 17, 2004, the 15th anniversary of the beginning of the Velvet Revolution, Prague Speakers’ Corner was born in Palackého náměstí, with over 1,000 people attending. Since then, Edworthy has received a continuous stream of invitations to start other such assembly points in places ranging from Ukraine to Zanzibar. This has prompted him to turn the effort into the Speakers’ Corner Trust (SCT), a charitable body established in early January with the help of Peter Bradley, a former British MP for The Wrekin district in northern England. Prominent figures have already joined the project. Leader of the House of Commons Jack Straw chairs SCT’s advisory council, comprising academics, lawyers, journalists, business people and NGO representatives. Former Czech playwright-president Václav Havel is the first of the trust’s international patrons.
The trust is now courting the corporate sector for cash. International law firm Clifford Chance has already confirmed its support. Michael Smyth, a partner with Clifford Chance in London, said the firm decided to back the project to show its commitment to public work. “[This project] has a particular appeal because it’s an international initiative and because it’s simple,” Smyth said. “I was thinking: how come I didn’t have this idea?”
Edworthy said the trust intends to seek sponsorship from Czech and international companies. So far, the project has been promised over € 20,000 (Kč 562,800) from private individuals. This seed funding is for research and consultation work in the U.K. and abroad to put together criteria for identifying appropriate candidate countries, establishing local steering committees and securing local support from key sectors. Besides the actual corner in a given community, the trust aims to organize debates and educational programs in area schools and colleges.
Adrian Wheeler, a trust director, said companies willing to back the initiative financially can gain a lot of esteem in the business community. “Most of the large, international companies are making large investments in corporate social responsibility,” said Wheeler, who has worked for some 30 years in public relations, most recently with GCI, one of the agencies that pioneered PR in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.
Clifford Chance’s Smyth said that through the Speakers’ Corner project, the firm wants to “institutionalize” charity and public service work in its offices worldwide. The firm has done pro bono work for nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International. “But this is the first initiative on free expression we’re supporting,” Smyth said. Clifford Chance is preparing registration and a legal structure for the trust.
Representatives of Prague’s large companies are hesitant about the initiative, saying it is an “atypical” form of corporate social responsibility and that they need more details before deciding whether to put money into it.
Former MP Bradley told CBW the trust is now seeking advice from some 30 organizations in the U.K. to develop the project. The trust is to be officially launched in the spring or early summer. The launch location is not known yet, but Bradley said it could be in central London.
As one of the most powerful symbols of the U.K.’s freedom of speech tradition, London’s Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner emerged from the struggle for civil liberties in Victorian times. Since then, anyone has been allowed to turn up unannounced and speak their mind without fear of legal repercussions. Karl Marx and George Orwell are among historical figures who’ve taken the opportunity.
The idea is catching on elsewhere. Last December, for example, the New Israel Fund (NIF) and the Tel Aviv municipality installed mics along the fashionable Rothschild Boulevard and encouraged people to speak up. Public speaking areas also exist in Australia, Canada and Singapore.