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Billy Bragg delivers a protest speech against ‘excessive’ bonuses for Royal Bank of Scotland bosses at Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park, London.Fiona Hanson

It's a typically offensive Sunday at Speakers' Corner. People are exercising their right to free speech, and they are not holding back.

A burly Christian preacher tells a group of young Muslims gathered around him that Islam is the demon's creed and "you have the spirit of Satan living in you."

A Muslim preacher insists that Jesus was a fake, just one of many quack prophets who claimed to be virgin-born.

An atheist heckler tells a Catholic: "The Pope ain't gonna help you. He's too busy counting his money and smoking his dope."

A men's-rights activist says feminism is a hoax, women's shelters get too much money and women are every bit as violent as men.

Then there is the campaigner against male circumcision who says that the ancient practice is barbaric, illegal and, in his experience, unnecessary. "It doesn't take me one second more in the shower to clean myself," he helpfully offers.

You can hear this sort of talk every Sunday at Speakers' Corner, a spot in the northeast corner of London's Hyde Park that has been a haven for free speech since Victorian times.

Over the years it has come to stand for the idea that citizens of democratic societies should have the maximum possible latitude to speak their minds, even if what is on their minds is nonsense; that no speech, however deplorable, should be beyond the pale; that countries that value their liberties must tolerate those who voice even the most offensive opinions.

That idea is under heavy attack these days. Modern activists often try to silence speakers they consider repugnant. They argue that free speech is being used as a smokescreen for hate and that allowing offensive speech exposes marginalized groups to intolerable and harmful prejudice. Speech itself, they say, is sometimes violence.

Universities routinely suppress speech that might offend. Only a few weeks ago, citing safety concerns, Toronto's Ryerson University even cancelled a panel discussion called "The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses." It would have featured, among others, controversial University of Toronto psychology professor Dr. Jordan Peterson.

Calls for a crackdown on offensive or bigoted speech have grown louder since the events last month in Charlottesville, Va., where a white nationalist rally ended in violence. In the opinion section of this paper, University of Toronto professor Mark Kingwell went as far as to argue that it might be time for new "curbs" on free speech.

"We already, in this country, ban hateful speech. Let's go farther and insist on discourse rules, limits on public outrage and aggressively regulated social media." How exactly the authorities would limit public outrage he did not say.

Speakers' Corner stands as a noisy counterpoint to arguments like that. The rule here is: Let it rip. You can open your mouth and say whatever you want about anything you wish – any group, nationality or religion; any government, government leader or system of government. Listeners can argue back, jeer or turn away in disgust or indifference. The one thing they can't do is stop you from talking.

In an odd way, it works. Despite all the wounding words being hurled around, all the slurs and shouts and insults, the scene seems remarkably free of threat or rancour. The young Muslims argue toe to toe with the ranting Christian preacher, telling him that he is all wrong about Islam and that theirs is a religion of peace. They look more excited than angry. One smiles a happy-warrior smile as he speaks.

Here and there, actual conversations break out. When one speaker insists that all politics are about race, a fresh-faced young man, who happens to be white, counters that when dealing with others he, at least, tries not to think about race. "Ah, you try!" says the skeptical speaker, who happens to be brown. Onlookers burst into laughter.

The passing public takes it all in stride. Picnickers lounge on the grass, oblivious to the hubbub on the pathway where speakers hold forth. Joggers in fluorescent running shoes weave through the crowd. A pair of young women in headscarves look on curiously while eating strawberries from a cardboard cup.

The Speakers' Corner tradition grew out of a 19th-century campaign by the Reform League. The group held giant rallies calling for a broadening of the right to vote, which was limited to a propertied minority at the time. In 1867, 150,000 protesters marched to Hyde Park after the government banned league members from meeting there. Eventually, the authorities backed down on such restrictions, and the Parks Regulation Act of 1872 established the right to gather and talk freely at Speakers' Corner.

Ever since, this spot in Hyde Park has been a place of open protest and free, often freaky, expression. George Orwell called it "one of the minor wonders of the world." In various visits there he heard "Indian nationalists, temperance reformers, Communists, Trotskyists, the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), the Catholic Evidence Society, freethinkers, vegetarians, Mormons, the Salvation Army, the Church Army, and a large variety of plain lunatics." Lenin, Marx and Orwell himself all spoke at Speakers' Corner. So did William Morris, the artist, designer and early socialist, and Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born black nationalist. Suffragettes campaigned there to secure the vote for women. Hundreds of thousands of protesters converged there in 2003 to rally against the coming war in Iraq.

The tradition is so entrenched that when authorities, worried about safety, recently tried to ban speakers from climbing up on step ladders to address the crowds, there was an immediate outcry. The ladders are back.

Britain's Lord Justice Stephen Sedley cited the spirit of Speakers' Corner when he famously ruled that: "Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having."

What is offensive is after all a matter of opinion, and authorities armed with a gag can easily slap it on legitimate critics or dissenters.

Most truths began as heresy. As that scalpel-penned heretic H.L Mencken put it: The liberation of the human mind has always depended on those "who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world."

Speakers' Corner is the citadel of rude, roistering dissent. It provides an outlet for discontents that might otherwise erupt in violence. It protects unpopular opinions that might otherwise be quashed by the majority. That protection is ultimately most valuable to minorities.

Societies evolve through the combat of ideas. It's best to let the ugly ideas take the field, then slay them where they stand. Jonathan Rauch, an American author, notes that when crusaders against gay rights such as Jerry Falwell and Anita Bryant began spewing their rubbish, it roused gay Americans to speak up, fight back and challenge the straight world to examine its views. In a free society, he wrote in Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, "the only legitimate way to decide who is right is through open-ended public checking of each by each, through criticism and questioning."

In a crude way, that is what is happening every Sunday at Speakers' Corner. What is said there would never pass for high-minded debate. Some Londoners complain the corner has become little more than a cheap tourist attraction hijacked by religious nuts, like the cowboy preacher who enjoys yelling "Yee haw!"

But its very existence through the decades is a waving flag. It fortifies the rebels, non-conformists and oddballs who challenge received wisdoms and keep the powerful honest. If haters get their say, too, it's a price well worth paying. We can deplore them, confront them, counter them, mock them, ignore them, but we must let them speak.

Marcus Gee is a columnist for The Globe and Mail.

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