Like a dozen other people on a patch of Hyde Park, Pete Read is standing on a soapbox, trying to get attention.
His makeshift lectern bears a placard which says “Free Speech Forum at the Open Platform,” and he invites everyone in the park on this warm Sunday afternoon to borrow his perch and say whatever they want--as long as it doesn’t involve swearing or stirring the crowd to violence.
The first person to accept the offer gets up and denounces Read for setting parameters on free speech. The guest speaker then tells his listeners that there’s nothing wrong with using the colloquial term for “carnal knowledge.”
“Where’s your knowledge?” shouts a frail woman in a walker, who appears to be 85.
The weekly spectacle that is Speaker’s Corner is under way.
All around, people with platforms of one sort or another are building crowds with their pronouncements on Jesus, socialism, the battle of the sexes and myriad other topics. A man in a white T-shirt argues passionately in favor of being unemployed.
Every discourse is punctuated by heckling. The crowd heckles the speakers. The speakers heckle the crowd. The crowd heckles itself.
While many of the speakers are there to lecture on serious topics, the most popular vocalists are those who are witty but have nothing in particular to talk about.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no right to free speech in this legendary swath of green lawns and paved walkways in the northeast corner of London’s best-known park. Under British law, speakers can be arrested for blasphemy, obscenity, inciting violence or saying something derogatory about the Royal Family.
Nonetheless, the weekly event remains one of the world’s pre-eminent symbols of the right to free expression. It is a marketplace of ideas in the truest sense; where else do a dozen or more speakers stand on milk crates and stepladders, simultaneously competing for listeners?
The weekly event draws people by the hundreds. Most of those in the crowd are tourists, but there are a substantial number of locals who come regularly to watch and heckle.
“They give you three minutes to develop your theme,” a veteran speaker once observed. “Then someone shouts ‘Liar!’ and the fun begins.”
It is not a coincidence that Speaker’s Corner stands in the same place where London’s public hangings were traditionally carried out. With the removal of the gallows in the early 19th Century, the people of the area were left without a meeting place. So they continued to gather in the same spot, particularly to air grievances.
In 1855, for example, shopkeepers gathered at the corner to protest the enactment by Parliament of laws that forbade businesses to operate on Sunday. Other rallies followed, some of which resulted in riots, and the police placed severe restrictions on public gatherings at the corner.
A group called the Reform League battled police in the park after they were refused permission to hold a mass rally. This ultimately led to the park corner being officially designated as a place for public meetings in 1872.
Among the great thinkers who espoused their views in the place that became known as Speaker’s Corner were Karl Marx, George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell. The Russian revolutionary V. I. Lenin, who lived in London between 1902 and 1903, recalled that he often visited Speaker’s Corner.
Though the park no longer seems to attract the most celebrated minds of the day, it remains London’s focal point for free speech issues. When the British government banned the book “Spycatcher,” which provided an unflattering look at the nation’s intelligence operations, it was read aloud at Speaker’s Corner.
No such grandiose events occur on this sunny day, just the nuts and bolts people expressing themselves. More nuts than bolts, some might say.
“What I am about to discuss is the way I see society evolving,” begins the pitch of one speaker trying to attract a crowd. “I am a nihilist. I believe in nothing because there is nothing in society worth believing in.”
Next to him, a man from the Socialist Party is waving his arm, yelling “Democracy stops at the factory gates,” his point being that workers are exploited.
“People choose to work there,” someone in the audience calls out.
“Yes they do,” answers the Socialist, “but the whole system is rigged.”
“Everyone should stand on their own two feet or die,” yells a bald man with an American accent.
All of a sudden, a woman screams from behind the crowd, “Stop in the name of Jesus! Stop in the name of Jesus!” Everyone turns to find a woman who is merely trying to build a crowd of her own.
A group of Jews and a group of Arabs are standing toe-to-toe, heatedly and loudly arguing about events in the Middle East. But there is no threat of violence, and a crowd gathers around the two groups to hear the argument. Some listeners, such as Bill Lerman, a vacationing Notre Dame student, jump into the discussion.
Speaker’s Corner is heavily patrolled by the police, but the officers rarely take any action. They are more likely to pose for photos with tourists.
“It’s the same speakers every week,” says one officer on patrol. “They know the boundaries.” But the police officer says he often gets complaints from tourists who think that a speaker has gone too far. Iranians and Iraqis constantly complain about each other, the officer says. He also has received numerous complaints from tourists about homosexual speakers.
The police keep no separate arrest statistics for Speaker’s Corner, but a police says there are typically only one or two arrests every few weeks. And it’s usually not because a speaker steps over the line, but because someone in the crowd becomes a nuisance.
“Occasionally the odd punch is thrown,” added Scotland Yard spokesman Neil Schofield.
Of all the speakers out this day, only Pete Read, host of the “Free Speech Forum,” offers others a chance to stand on his soapbox.
“What we’re trying to do is provide the democratic right of free speech to everyone,” he says. “There’s a kind of therapy in it as well. You get someone who has a bee in their bonnet about something, and it makes them feel better if they can talk about it.”
Read’s bee, these days, is his belief that the British government is misleading the public on child-care issues. He dispenses a lot of facts and figures when he talks.
The fact that hordes of people appear to have come to Speaker’s Corner for a laugh, or because it’s in their guide books, doesn’t faze Read in the least.
“People do listen,” he says. “The last thing this is is a tourist exercise.”