Bughouse Square Debates celebrate free speech

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 in Washington Square Park, across from the library.

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. There are over 100,000 items for sale.


Burial site of Studs and Ida Terkel's ashes.

The Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan was the master of ceremonies for this year's event. Chicago author and raconteur Studs Terkel held that post for some years before his death. Terkel's and his wife, Ida's ashes are buried under a tree in the park.

The debates are organized but still lively and raucous. They consist of the Open Soapbox, where anyone can have their say and get heckled. The Soapbox Debates, which is a judged competition, The Main Debate, which tackles a predominant issue of the day.

There is the annual presentation of the John Peter Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award for defending free speech and civil liberties. This year's award was presented to Kevin Coval, a poet, writer, and activist.

Washington Square Park, better known as Bughouse Square (slang for a mental institution), was the center for free speech in Chicago. People congregated to discuss and listen to speeches on public and community issues of the day.

Over the years the square developed into a place where activists, radicals, bohemians, and others would give rousing speeches, hold debates, and protest. It was most active from 1910 through the 1960's.

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 in Chicago.

Anarchists, socialists, International Workers of the World (Wobblies), preachers, atheists, birth control advocates, sexual freedom advocates, freethinkers, and cranks would stand up, speak, be heckled, or debated.

No one was shut down, shut up, or banned from speaking or debating. No one was offended. People were tougher. There were no snowflakes, cupcakes, or buttercups.

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 in people's minds alive long past their demise.

The saloon played an integral role in Chicago’s free speech movement. Back or upper rooms were used for meetings, speeches, or other expressive activities by a wide array of people. Some ethnic groups, like the Czech’s, built large gathering spaces which were a combination of political activity and drinking halls.

One of the most famous saloons during the era was the Dill (Dil) Pickle Club. It was located in a barn at Tooker's Alley, behind a home. The location is a parking structure now. After speeches at Bug House Square, patrons would go to the Dill Pickle for debate, discussion, to listen to speeches or take in a play. During Prohibition, the club was a speakeasy and later a mob hangout. It operated between 1917 to 1935.

Freedom of speech, expression, the exercise of religion, and a free press are the corner stones of American values. They are ironclad guarantees with very few narrow restrictions.

We need more places like Bughouse Square or the former Dill Pickle Club, where all are welcome to speak, debate, and argue without fear of repression from others. Chicagoans, with their rich history of speech and expression, should celebrate and exercise their freedoms often, instead of one day a year.

We must stop, cease, desist, and resist any who would shut down or shut up people because their subjective feelings are offended.

Ideas are supposed to disturb and even offend at times. Ideas, no matter how outlandish, make individuals think critically. Unfortunately, in this land of supposed educated people, too many form tribes, groups who think alike. That means no one is thinking. Thoughtlessness leads to repression, oppression, and loss of freedom.

If something is supposedly offensive, come up with a reasoned counter argument. Only the ignorant and lazy repress, shut down, or shut up others.

Stop being ignorant and lazy. Start thinking.


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