Open Forums & Free Speech

Anti-War Dance, 1918
Anti-War Dance, 1918
Is Free Love Possible?
Is Free Love Possible?
Chicago's Interracial Debating Classic, January 25, 1931
Chicago's Interracial Debating Classic, January 25, 1931

>The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution famously prohibits Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” But our modern notion of free speech emerged in the early 20th century in places like the Dill Pickle Club, Bughouse Square, and thousands of other forums large and small.

The outpouring of speech and writing that accompanied the rise of North America’s large industrial cities was diverse in its political orientation, form, and content. But much of it was offensive to the people who controlled society’s political, economic, and cultural institutions. The conflict between advocates for change and defenders of the status quo would shape the possibilities for free speech and redefine the limits of government power over Americans’ political debate and private behavior.

Radical and religious speakers leveled their appeals to passers by on street corners and at factory gates. But two of Chicago’s public parks provided the most consistent outdoor forums. In the city’s “Towertown” neighborhood, Washington Square Park earned the nickname “Bughouse Square.” On the southside, near the University of Chicago, the congregation of speakers in Washington Park called itself the “Bug Club.” Together the “Bugs” provided political entertainment for several generations of Chicagoans.

Some likened these forums to an open-air university. As a participant in the Bug Club wrote to the Chicago Tribune in 1921, “It’s a glorious institution and the man with a craving for knowledge who works all day and cannot afford a university education … will certainly assimilate a wealth of knowledge in a short summer term.” In contrast, a critic of the open forums complained they were “irreligious, blasphemous, ribald, and revolutionary.”

Even those sympathetic with radicalism could find soapbox speakers wanting in quality and logic. In his acclaimed book American Hunger the author Richard Wright ridiculed African American Communists in Washington Park because they spoke with accented English that they picked up from their immigrant comrades, and made wild claims about the impending revolution. Likewise the poet Kenneth Rexroth recalled that the speakers at Bughouse Square reflected not so much reasoned argumentation as “every variety of radical sect, lunatic religion, and crackpot health.”

The significance of these forums, however, was not necessarily the quality of their speakers. The very wildness of speakers’ claims, and the variety of topics they addressed, captured the imagination of many, especially young people. As the Chicago writer Studs Terkel recalled, “there was a great deal of ‘bull’ at Bughouse Square, there was a great deal of all sorts of wild, impassioned talk and conversation of all variety, from all strata of our thought, and to me at least, as a young boy it was a very colorful and very rich area.”

Speakers in Chicago’s outdoor forums verbally assaulted the cultural and political conventions of the day, laying claim to public space and sparking the imaginations of listeners. Whether reasoned or profane, their incessant talk mapped the boundaries free speech.