GOLD COAST — At a time when politics in Chicago and across the country are at the forefront of consciousness, one free speech tradition marks its 30th year in one of Chicago’s historic parks.
During this year’s Bughouse Square Debates, activists, intellectuals and other Chicagoans can speak on various topics from religion to city politics from noon-4 p.m. July 30 in Washington Square Park, 901 N. Clark St.
Attendees can also listen to excerpts of Studs Terkel audio by scanning QR codes at the podiums in the park thanks to the WFMT Radio and the Chicago History Museum. Rick Kogan of the Chicago Tribune will moderate the event, and the Environmental Encroachment marching band will perform during the event.
The debate series derives its name from the slang term for mental health institutions and the fact that radical, provocative speakers would share their ideas in the park in the past, according to Karen Christianson, director of public engagement of the Newberry Library, which is hosting the event.
Because free speech remains an important part of our society, the debate series, which highlights the right to free speech, is also significant, Christianson said.
“I think that freedom of speech is an issue that its importance never goes away,” Christianson said. “Having an annual public celebration of the importance of people’s right to freedom of expression is really critical.”
After the marching band performance and Rick Kogan’s introduction, the Newberry Library’s president David Spadafora will present WITNESS, an international organization that trains and helps people using video to capture human rights abuse, with the John Peter Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award.
The event’s main debate between John Nothdurft of the Heartland Institute and Tom Tresser, activist and editor of “Chicago Is Not Broke: Funding the City We Deserve,” will center on Chicago’s financial issues, Christianson said, adding that the audience is encouraged to heckle.
After the main debate and Q&A session, there will be several soapboxes upon which various speakers, including author David Ramsay Steele, fair housing advocate Gail Schechter and historian and In These Times journalist Alex McLeese, will discuss topics ranging from climate change to nonviolent protests.
Christianson said the Newberry Library had reached out to Black Lives Matter activists to participate but hadn’t received confirmation from the group.
The Terkel recordings feature him reminiscing on Bughouse Debates as well as audio from other topics, according to Allison Schein, archivist at WFMT & Studs Terkel Radio Archive. It was important to have Terkel included in some way because of his relationship with the park and his work, which highlighted ordinary people who wouldn’t otherwise have a voice, she said.
“Since Studs had such a history with the park, we thought it was a natural fit,” Schein said. “The fact that there is a space for larger conversations to happen is absolutely necessary and vital, especially in this day and age.”