Setting aside a public space to promote free speech
Prague Speakers' Corner branches out across the globe
Posted: June 6, 2012
Free speech is at the heart of democracy across the globe. The Greek writer Homer said it was every man's right; the French philosopher Voltaire would have died to protect it; and former Czech President Václav Havel believed it to be the cornerstone of democratic life.
Since the Velvet Revolution, and thanks largely to Havel's leadership afterward, free speech has become an accepted civic right in the Czech Republic over the past 20 years.
In 2004, Prague even saw the establishment of its own Speakers' Corner, inspired by the famous Hyde Park platform in London where anyone can come and express their views.
British expat Euan Edworthy, who has been based in Prague since 1994, was behind the establishment of the Prague Speakers' Corner, and is now a trustee of the international charity Speakers' Corner Trust which grew out of his original idea.
"We wanted to create a forum where people could express their opinions and not be scared," he said. "Speakers' Corner is a landmark for freedom of speech in the sense that, if anyone came and tried to bulldoze it, it would be a huge thing."
From its launch pad in Prague six years ago, Speakers' Corner Trust has grown and unveiled a number of Speakers' Corners across the globe, from Berlin to Abuja, Nigeria.
"It was born as a pipe dream. Now it has evolved into a UK-based, international charity," Edworthy said.
Speakers' Corner Trust is now run by director Peter Bradley, a former Labor MP, and backed by major sponsors and supporters, including the UK Justice Ministry and Google.
Edworthy said there are plans in place to expand further in the Central and East European region, as well as focusing on developing the outpost in Nigeria.
"We are actively looking at opportunities in southern Europe at the moment, primarily in Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro," he said. "It takes time to get the right partnerships with local authorities, nongovernmental organizations and local community and educational groups, although we hope to have a couple of additional Speakers' Corners up and running before the end of the year," he added.
As well as setting up the platforms, the trust works with educational partners in a bid to help the new generation understand the importance of free speech and to revitalize civic debate, even in countries where free speech is taken for granted, like the United Kingdom.
In partnership with Leeds University, Speakers' Corner Trust has just launched the Youth Amplified website, which provides a range of free resources to teach speaking and listening skills to those between the ages of 11 and 18.
All of the charity's activities aim to promote their central tenet: the importance of free speech.
Or as Havel, himself a founding patron of Speakers' Corner Trust, put it: "Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democratic life. It is by the free exchange of ideas among citizens about how they should live together and how they should be governed that we create and sustain the democratic society.So the rights to free association and expression are scarcely less important than the right to live in peace and free from want."
For more information, go to Speakerscornertrust.org.
Jennifer Rigby can be reached at