I recently discovered the concept of a Speakers’ Corner, a dedicated physical space for individuals to speak publicly and engage in civic discourse. My initial reaction was approval – the idea of bringing ideas to a public forum sounds very neoclassical, like something Socrates would’ve taken advantage of.
Then I recalled the criticism of “free speech zones” and had trouble reconciling my appreciation for the former and distaste towards the latter. Certainly, the government dedicating space for advocates to speak directly to the people is admirable but it provides both a means for compartmentalizing such voices as well as an opportunity for such spaces to be monitored and subsequently stifled. Indeed, the creation of such spaces may serve the interests of authoritarians and opponents to free speech as a Speakers’ Corner may be utilized as an escape from criticism. They could serve as a sort of proof that the society is still free, despite the absence of serious use.
I still think such spaces are admirable and even worthwhile to establish. They hearken back to the days of actual soapboxes and public orators. But they must be seen as a compliment of a society’s dedication to civic discourse and open debate, not a defining feature. Putting such spaces in highly-trafficked, places of import and cultivating a culture of contribution and public thought are steps that a government of any size could undertake in service of the high ideal of free speech.