Soapboxes and Ladders at Speaker’s Corner

Soapboxes and Ladders at Speaker’s Corner

13th July 2017

In our monthly News Roundup blogpost last week, we briefly reported that speakers at London’s famous Speakers’ Corner were ordered to get down from their ladders and soapboxes amid concerns about health and safety.  We thought we’d take a more detailed look at this situation as both ladders and health and safety issues are subjects that are close to our heart here at Safety Fabrications.

A Speakers’ Corner is traditionally an area where open-air public speaking, debate and discussion take place and Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner is the original and most famous of these.  Any subject is allowed as long as speeches are lawful as the platform does not provide immunity from the law of the land.  In practice, police are tolerant of speeches and usually only intervene when a complaint is made.  Although there are other Speakers’ Corners in the UK and in other countries, Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner has acquired an international reputation for demonstrations and protests due to its tolerance for free speech. 

A protest in Hyde Park was organised in 1855 to demonstrate against Robert Grosvenor’s bid to ban Sunday trading which was to include a restriction on pub opening times.  Around 200,000 protestors jeered and taunted upper class horse carriages passing by and when a further protest occurred a week later, the police attacked the crowd.  As a result of this, policing of Hyde Park was entrusted to the Metropolitan Police (the only Royal Park to be policed in this way) and a Met police station is situated in the Park to this day. 

Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park has been a popular location for debate since the 19th Century and was established as a point of free speech and debate in 1872.  The Chartists, the Reform League, the Suffragettes and the Stop the War Coalition have all held protests at this spot.  Among the notable speakers who have frequented Speakers’ Corner over the years are Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, Marcus Garvey and William Morris.

In a 1999 court ruling, Lord Justice Sedley described Speakers’ Corner as demonstrating "the tolerance which is both extended by the law to opinion of every kind and expected by the law in the conduct of those who disagree, even strongly, with what they hear."  This ruling established in English case law that freedom of speech is not limited to the inoffensive but also extends to "the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative, as long as such speech did not tend to provoke violence".  Prior to this, prohibited speech at Speakers’ Corner included blasphemy, obscenity, insulting the Queen or inciting a breach of the peace.

On 18th June this year, police began to prevent speakers at Speakers’ Corner from speaking on boxes, ladders or other elevated platforms which led to national press coverage both online and in print.  The public outrage has led to a slight change to the policy and it now allows ladders again, as long as they are small, two-step, safety ladders