I went to Speakers' Corner in London, the spiritual home of Reddit

At full pitch, Speakers’ Corner feels like the scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which Brian takes a stroll through an avenue of robed preachers. Agitated figures in varying states of frothiness stand on stepladders, castigating the crowds on topics ranging from the evils of feminism to American foreign policy. Bystanders come and go, some laughing, some outraged. A few try to argue with the speakers and are shouted down, while others, feeling the nature of the game a little better, just heckle. People are attracted by the commotion, but most soon tire of the constant baiting and confrontation. Basically, it feels like an Ur-internet, which should come as no surprise considering that it was this boulevard of soapboxes that was the original inspiration for Reddit.

In May of this year, when Reddit’s recent meltdown was just an angry-mob-shaped dot on the horizon, co-founder Alexis Ohanian defended the site as a home for free speech. "You know what inspired Reddit?" wrote Ohanian. "Speakers’ Corner in London. I studied abroad in London for a semester and it really inspired me. I came back States-side and started a phpbb forum, and then a year later Steve and I made Reddit. It’s a place where literally anyone can get on a soapbox and talk about what matters to them."

"a place where literally anyone can get on a soapbox."
Ohanian’s description of Speakers’ Corner is pretty much correct. It’s a loosely defined area in the corner of Hyde Park in central London: roughly 400 meters of leafy promenade that’s known for its idiosyncratic public speakers. Like Reddit, its purpose is noble, in theory. Engraved flagstones marking its boundaries claim that the association with public speaking goes all the way back to the 17th century, when condemned men and women were given the chance to make a final speech before being executed at the nearby Tyburn gallows. This makes for a good origin story, but the area really earned its reputation in the late 1800s and early 20th century, where it was the focal point of protests for male, working-class suffrage, and later the home of socialist speakers.
Ohanian paints it as a wellspring of free speech, something to be admired and imitated, but is it fair to compare this local curiosity to Reddit?

A heckler gets involved in the discussion.

When I visit the spot on a bright Sunday morning, there’s only a small crowd of around 20 people, almost entirely tourists, forming a wide semi-circle around Oliver Kahn, a suited Christian preacher. He’s barking at the crowd about the dangers of "marrying the wrong person," and, as I watch, a man on a high-seated rented bike weaves through the crowd into the open space, and yells: "I tell you, you are a hateful man and I’ve understood nothing."

The preacher later tells me that tourists like this are the worst. He says they don't listen. "Because my expression is angry there must be something wrong with what I’m saying," he tells me. Kahn, who’s from Afghanistan and comes to the Corner to "help people as God helps people," says that despite the site’s reputation for free speech, many visitors are too easily offended and can’t stomach what they hear. "English people are very polite," he says. "They will kill you politely: say ‘sorry’ and put poison in you; say ‘excuse me’ and you’ll be dead."

As the day progresses, new speakers arrive on stepladders, stools, and benches and the crowd begins to swell. Those talking are predominantly Muslim and Christian evangelicals, although one standout is Jacob, a writer and psychologist with flyaway hair and white stubble who informs the crowd that "sleep deprivation is the biggest threat facing humanity." When I ask him why he comes to speak, he cites ignorance and says people are in "cultural denial." He also enjoys listening as much as speaking. "I heckle," he says. "I’m pretty good. But that’s because I’ve known this place for a long time and you know how to try and wind up the other speakers." In other words, he's a troll. There’s a definite sense that a speaker’s right to participate is earned through this sort of mutual hazing.

Jacob, with Oliver Kahn speaking behind him.

Most of those in attendance are tourists, here for the sunshine and accidentally charmed by the theatrics, but others treat the area like a historical attraction; a quaint reenactment of the secular principles that supposedly gave birth to liberal democracy. Steve Thomas, an ordained pastor from Louisville, Ohio, says he came specifically to see the speakers. "They do it in America, but they do it on street corners, not spaces like this," he tells me. "But people just ignore them mostly."

Thomas talks fondly, almost proudly, about the area. "They’re not worried about being politically correct," he says, as a heckler and a preacher argue over whether it’s "cool" to be gay. "If you did this in the States there would be a lot more trouble." He says that in the US people can’t talk about offensive things and therefore can’t have honest conversations about their beliefs. "Political correctness limits free speech," he says.

Others see it as a way of exorcising some of society’s more troubling aspects. Vegard Tokheim, an impeccably dressed visitor from Norway who says he’s just come from a gay pride festival in Oslo, moves from speaker to speaker delivering accented heckles. He tells me that he was trembling after confronting one speaker, but he seems exhilarated to have spoken. "These are very deranged people," he says. "But it is much better to have them here."

Tokheim says he was in Norway during the attacks by Anders Breivik, the far-right terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011, and was near the bomb that Breivik detonated in Oslo’s government quarter. "And he was just alone reading things in his room," says Tokheim. He gestures to a preacher behind him who is delivering some words of warning on the topic of homosexuality. "This man has the ability to talk to strangers and get out his feelings. I think that once he’s done this he will feel better."

A discussion heats up on the ground.
Contrary to Ohanian’s description, though, people at Speakers’ Corner can’t talk about absolutely anything they like. There are no special laws that apply to the area, and, as in the rest of the UK, inciting violence and any sort of hate speech is illegal. During my half-day there I see plenty of inflammatory arguments — about the nature of Islam, about "women’s place" in society — but the presence of the crowd seems to dull the nastier edges. At one, point a Texas preacher wearing magnificent snakeskin boots with the words "Jesus Saves" is cut off in the middle of a particularly unedifying rant about pornography (did you know that women are very pornographic nowadays?) by a Canadian teenager who approaches him with the words: "Sir, can I ask just one question?" He kneels down and with a dramatic gesture points with both hands at the preacher’s boots. "What are thoooooooose?"

Sometimes, you just can’t escape the internet.

The Texan speaker, retorting to the teen that questioned his choice of footwear.

Any speaker who becomes too insulting is laughed at or shunned, and most of those present seem to be with friends or family. If they get told they’re a sinner or an idiot for this or that belief or opinion, they can just shrug and walk off. The Corner is a shrine for free speech not because the speakers are protected, but because they’re exposed. They have to talk to people, face to face, not just shout abuse anonymously. And if they can’t do that, well, the sun’s still shining and the rest of the park is free to explore.