Courtney1I’m gonna get on my soap box for a second to talk about my recent trip to London over winter break with my dad. Our shared love  of history, culture (in this case: pub crawls), and walking made for a really fantastic vacation. It was all very ideal for truly taking in every aspect of the greatest city on Earth, and we did do just that- except for London attraction that we wanted to so badly to experience the more we learned about it and that is “Speakers Corner”.

Courtney2“Speakers Corner” is located at the northeast corner of the massive 340 acre Hyde Park near the iconic Marble Arch. It’s just a little stretch of land identical in every way to the rest of the park except on Sundays from around 12-6pm. The two of us stood at the site in the cold rain on New Years day. It was pretty vacant apart from the occasional disgruntled human huddled under a broken umbrella, but had we been there three days earlier we would have witnessed hordes of people from business men from the financial district or blue collar workers on lunch break to university students and housewives to homeless radicals and ordained ministers. They all gather to Speakers Corner, step onto their platforms and bellow out to the onlookers and their sermons, creeds, and calls to action.

This tradition dates back to 1866 when the Chartists occupied the land protesting the suppression of workers rights- specificallyCourtney3 freedom of speech and right to assembly. Police efforts failed to quell them, and 6 years later the UK parliament officially granted Brits the protected right to hold public meetings in the park.

Speakers Corner is a cornerstone of British history in their quest for democracy amid monarchy and has become a living symbol not just for the UK but also to many other countries. A few blocks of pavement where any passerby is free to voice their opinions, converse in dialogues, or even stand upon their soapboxes (or for the more modern and aggressive orators: mini-ladders). This is the only place in the UK where pedestrians are literally on a pedestal and can have a voice free from Parliamentary procedure.

Courtney4Freedom of Speech is certainly something I take for granted here in the land of the free. Besides the occasional castle and the fact that all the cars are opposite, London feels like a city in America. Its as easy to forget about the monarch government as it is to forget how not too long ago the Brits didn’t have their individual freedoms guaranteed like ours in our bill of rights. In fact, freedom of expression wasn’t explicitly guaranteed until the 1998 UK Human Rights Act. This inspired me to look up the real difference between their rights and ours.

European Convention on Human Rights
incorporated in the UK Human Rights Act 1998 – Article 10: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers..

US Bill of Rights 1791 First Amendment to the Constitution – Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

In America, laws are passed to grant rights to its citizens, but in Britain, laws are passed to limit government’s ability to interfere. Besides just general connotations due to differences in philosophy, parliament has no “supreme law” and can therefore make “exceptions” to granted freedoms as much as they feel inclined.

Courtney5Speaker’s Corner may be a symbol for freedom of speech but unfortunately there is an unspoken reality that speakers can’t actually say anything they want in hyde park, in the same way that “freedom of speech” isn’t an absolute freedom neither in the UK nor here in the US. However what can legally be defined as terrorism or hate speech is broader in the UK…. So no, you cant stand on your soap box and declare that you wish to KILL THE QUEEN or that @#$%! or *$#@#$ or say anything someone can complain to the police about- because they will arrest you. But hey! Next time you find yourself wandering in Hyde Park walk up to the northeast corner and stand where Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, and William Morris have stood. Oh and B.Y.O.S.B.









About Dr. Ostroff
Head of Upper School at The Emery/Weiner School in Houston, TX

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