The Bughouse Square Debates: A celebration protecting free speech and expression

In 1842, the American Land Company donated a three acre site of land to the City of Chicago. The tract, a former cow path with a well for watering cattle, was to be used as a public park. The land company owners stipulated the park be named Washington Square. The American Land Company was developing sites around the tract and wanted a beautiful park to be the centerpiece.

Washington Square Park is considered the first park in the City of Chicago. The park is located at 901 N. Clark Street, across the street from the Newberry Library.

Washington Square Park, better known as Bughouse Square (slang for mental institution), is the center for free speech in Chicago. Since its inception, it has been a place where people congregated to discuss public and community issues of the day. Over the years it developed into a place where activists, radicals, bohemians, and others would get on their soapboxes to give rousing speeches, hold debates, and protest. It was most active from around 1910 through the 1960s.

Bughouse Square was the hub of free speech in the nation. It was a celebrated and popular tourist attraction. The square’s heyday was in the 1920s-30s. It was an era of political, social religious, and artistic movements. Anarchists, socialists, International Workers of the World (Wobblies), preachers, atheists, freethinkers, and cranks would stand up, speak, be heckled, or debated.

Chicago’s free speech movement flourished during the first half of the Twentieth Century. At one point there were over two hundred venues where people could express themselves. Most were ordinary working people with little education. Many of Chicago’s famous writers attended these forums. They wrote about them, keeping the venues alive long past their demise.

Chicago Tribune's Rick Kogan as the master of ceremonies.

Chicago Tribune's Rick Kogan as the master of ceremonies.

In 1986 the Newberry Library revived the Bughouse Square Debates. The annual event is a celebration of the freedom of speech. It is held on the last Saturday in July. Yesterday marked the 29th annual Bughouse Square Debates.

The event coincides with the Newberry Library Book Fair. The book fair is one of the largest used book sales in the country. Books, vinyl records, tapes, CD's, video, prints, magazines, and other media are priced from one dollar to the sky is the limit.

The Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan was the master of ceremonies for the debates.

The debates are organized but still lively and even raucous. They consist of the Open Soapbox, where anyone can have their say and be heckled, The Soapbox Debates, which is a judged competition, The Main Debate, which tackles a predominant issue of the day. There is also the presentation of the John Peter Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award for defending free speech and civil liberties.

Wendy Kaminer (r), recipient of the John Peter Altgeld award.

Wendy Kaminer accepting of the John Peter Altgeld award.

This year’s recipient of the Altgeld Award is attorney Wendy Kaminer. Ms. Kaminer, who hales from Boston, is the first non-local recipient of the award.

From the Newberry Library website:

Kaminer has enjoyed a prolific career defending free speech and diagnosing social and cultural developments that squelch it. In addition to being the author of I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional: The Recovery Moment and Other Self-Help Fashions and Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today, she contributes regularly to newspapers and online publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and

In much of her writing and activism, Kaminer pays close attention to instances of censorship on college campuses. In service to this commitment, she sits on the advisory board of FIRE: Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national organization dedicated to defending and sustaining individual rights at America’s colleges and universities, including freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.

Our First Amendment Rights are being eroded and trampled on. Politicians, bureaucrats, academia, activists, organizers, protesters, journalists, and other whiners and complainers claim we must surrender some of our individual rights for the safety, security, and to protect the tender sensitivities of the collective wad. We should not be allowed to offend anyone.

It is important we celebrate and protect freedom of speech and expression. It is extremely important we remember these are unalienable individual rights. They should never be sacrificed or surrendered for the safety, security, or sensitivity of the collective wad. People have a right to offend. The offended have a right to respond. No one has a right to censor.

There is no such thing as hate, dangerous, violent, racist, politically incorrect, politically unpalatable, insensitive, offensive, treasonous or seditious speech and expression. There is only free speech and free expression. There are few limits on speech and expression. The limits are restricted to imminent or clear and present danger of illegal or violent acts occurring. That is a very high burden imposed by design.

Politicians, who took an oath to defend and protect the Constitution, are becoming some of the worst censors. Entertainers, who profit mightily from the First Amendment, are advocates of censorship. Writers and some journalists use their First Amendment rights to advocate censorship.

We, as American citizens, have a duty and obligation to protect free speech and expression. We do not have to agree with what is spoken, written, or expressed. We have every right to criticize or vigorously debate it. What we do not have a right to do is shut it down, censor it.

There is no right not to be offended. There is no right protecting over tender sensitivities.

The censors, political correct police, activists, and organizers do not realize one very important thing. Trends change. Today's heroes of censorship could be shut down and shut up tomorrow.

Free speech and expression are the cornerstone of American values. It is up to each and every individual to protect and defend free speech and expression. You can lambaste speech and expression all you want. You cannot and should not demand censorship, shutting people up or shutting them down. You may be the next one censored, shut up, or shut down.

Remember this:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist...

...Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. (Martin Niemöller)

Who will speak for you when everyone is silenced?

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