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UK - London - Knightsbridge: Hyde Park - Speaker's Corner | by wallyg
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UK - London - Knightsbridge: Hyde Park - Speaker's Corner

Speakers' Corner, located in the northeast corner of Hyde Park, is an area where public speaking is allowed on any subject without fear of legal repercussions. Only two subjects are off limits: the British Royal Family and the overthrow of the British government. Though Hyde Park Speakers' Corner is generally considered to be the paved area closest to Marble Arch, legally it extends as far as the Reform Tree, and also covers a large area of the adjacent parade ground.


Public riots broke out in the park in 1855, in protest over the Sunday Trading Bill which forbade buying and selling on a Sunday which was, at that time, the only day working people had off. These riots were eagerly described by Karl Marx as the beginning of the English revolution. The Chartist movement used Hyde Park as a point of assembly for workers' protests but no permanent speaking location was established. The Reform League organized massive and violent protests in 1866 and 1867 which compelled the government to extend the franchise to include most working class men. The riots for democratic reform encouraged some to force issue of the "right to speak" in Hyde Park. In 1872 the Royal Parks and Garden's Act delegated the issue of permitting public meetings to the Park Authorities (rather than central government). Contrary to popular belief it does not confer a statutory basis for the right to speak at Speakers' Corner. Parliamentary debates on the act illustrate that a general principle of being able to meet and speak was not the intention, but that some areas would be permitted to be used for that purpose. Since that time it has become a traditional site for public speeches and debate as well as the main site of protest and assembly in Britain. There are some who contend that the tradition has a connection with the older Tyburn hanging gallows where the condemned man was allowed to speak his last words.


Although many of its regular speakers are distinctly non-mainstream, it has been frequented by such people as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, and William Morris. Its existence is frequently upheld as a demonstration of the principle of free speech, as anyone can turn up unannounced and talk on almost any subject, though they are likely to be heckled by regulars.


It has been argued that the existence of a specific location where free speech is permitted is used as an excuse by the authorities to prohibit free speech in most public spaces in London, including the rest of Hyde Park and all other Royal Parks, where free speech is explicitly forbidden in written by-laws. In the late 19th century, for instance, a combination of park by-laws, use of the Highways Acts and abuse of venue licensing powers of the London County Council made it one of the few places where socialist speakers could meet and debate. In 2003 the Park authorities tried to ban a demonstration set for February 15 to stop the war in Iraq. This caused general uproar and forced a climbdown; the demonstration was the largest in British history with over 1 million people attending.

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Taken on November 12, 2006