Cliffhanging Off The Soapbox

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CLIFFHANGING OFF THE SOAPBOX

WORDS BY MEGHNA MUKERJEE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE

I was introduced to Speakers’ Corner – the home of free speech – by my father. Whenever he’s in London we visit the north-eastern corner of Hyde Park, close to Marble Arch. Here, speakers are welcomed on Sundays to talk about any subject they choose. Speakers don’t enjoy any legal immunity, but the police and audiences are largely tolerant.
Created in the late 19th century after years of workers’ protests and riots at Hyde Park over the Sunday Trading Bill, Speakers’ Corner became one of the few places where socialist speakers could debate. Frequented by the likes of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell described it as “one of the minor wonders of the world”.
Some people stumble upon Speakers’ Corner while enjoying Hyde Park, but many others attend these Sunday sessions regularly. In my experience, people encourage robust commentary and even doses of heckling, but the main aim is to have a space to voice personal views. Many other British cities as well as countries such as New Zealand, Malaysia and Canada have created Speakers’ Corners of their own.
We have our ritual, my father and I. We stroll around the iconic park and make our way to Speaker’s Corner, specifically to its strategically placed refreshments cafe. Coffees in hand, we find an empty bench and listen. No matter what any speaker is saying, there’s a strong “live and let live” undercurrent. On my last visit, I remember a man speaking fervently about Christianity, another about the increase in the cost of living in Palestine and the country’s economic policies and yet another about Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

If freedom of speech is in danger, a no-judgement zone is imperative.

In February of this year I followed the news from India about the arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Students’ Union President. He was charged with sedition over a protest and branded “anti-national”. I watched the theatrics in Parliament and the outpour of opinions across social and commercial media. Freedom of speech is one of India’s core fundamental rights – a definitive pillar of any democracy. I imagine students anywhere will debate, provoke and protest. You’d think allowing debate would empower and strengthen the foundation of a democracy, and yet, there are suddenly new rules to play by.
It seems to boil down to a group of people not being able to tolerate others’ choices or opinions. “Our-beliefs-our-laws-our-rules-are-the-only-ones-that-matter”. Unsavoury opinions have no place here.
This, however, is not an India specific phenomenon. A wing-clipped approach to freedom of speech has been a focal point of disagreement in Western universities for years. Many have pointed out how the protection of free speech is meaningless if that only entails freedom of speech deemed “appropriate”.
Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia University have faced criticism regularly for heavily censoring their students. Books such as Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate talk extensively about how restrictions at US universities have taught students the “wrong lessons about living in a free society”.
The extreme-political-correctness culture is an issue in the UK too with the 2016 Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) published by Spiked, an online magazine, revealing that 90% of British universities actively censored freedom of speech on campus – up from 80% in 2015. Some of the most prestigious UK universities, worryingly, feature high up on this list.
A few years ago I thought Speakers’ Corner was a place for eccentrics. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would need a designated area to speak their minds. But now I understand. A predominantly neutral, prejudice-free zone for one’s views is becoming increasingly rare.
If freedom of speech is in danger, a no-judgement zone is imperative. I think my father always knew this but let me evolve past my initial superficial perceptions into a realisation of the importance of the essence of Speakers’ Corner. I’m grateful to him for that.
Perhaps Speakers’ Corner has a lesson for everyone, everywhere – lessons of acceptance, respecting different opinions, allowing people to have diverse values and priorities, all while peacefully coexisting. If we are to counter a growing climate of widespread intolerance, the more Speakers’ Corners the better.
Speakers’ Corner, North East edge of Hyde Park, London, W2 2UH 
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