During the 2016 Bughouse Square Debates on Saturday, July 30, the Newberry Library will present the John Peter Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award to WITNESS, an international organization working to help people use video as a medium of expression and a vehicle for fighting for human rights.
The presentation of the Altgeld Award is a fixture of the Bughouse Square Debates. The award recognizes individuals who defend civil liberties and freedom of speech or whose outspoken views on subjects considered taboo provide daring examples of free expression.
WITNESS was founded in 1992 to help record, preserve, and disseminate stories that might otherwise go unheard or unseen and to empower individuals to use video to expose inequality, injustice, and abuses of power. The organization provides training on how to safely record videos, preserve them, and share them with the appropriate audiences to maximize their impact.
Among WITNESS’s recent projects, the organization has trained and supported activists working to protect sex workers’ rights in Eastern Europe, to fight forced evictions in Cambodia, to campaign to pass the Elder Justice Act in the United States, and to illuminate stories of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Video offers a uniquely visceral way of communicating. Over the past few years, viral video footage has confronted millions of Americans with the tragic consequences of racial inequality and has fueled an ongoing national conversation on race and policing.
As the recording and sharing of video continues to factor into debates of great consequence, it becomes increasingly important that individuals document the world around them safely and responsibly. WITNESS’s work ensures the continued use of video as a source of documentary evidence and a tool for change.
“WITNESS embodies the spirit of the Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award,” said Karen Christianson, Director of Public Engagement at the Newberry. “Supporting individuals in their efforts to challenge injustice where they see it, WITNESS helps us all appreciate and harness video as a mode of free expression capable of equalizing imbalances of power.”
About the Bughouse Square Debates
Every summer, the Newberry organizes the Bughouse Square Debates, an event in Washington Square Park that celebrates the park’s legacy as Chicago’s oldest and most important free-speech space. During the debates, orators mount soapboxes located throughout the park to deliver 15-minute speeches on subjects ranging from gun control to the renovation of Chicago’s Wrigley Field. At the end of the event, judges award the champion soapboxer with the Dill Pickle Award.
As a further celebration of free speech, each year the Newberry recognizes an individual or organization with the John Peter Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award. Altgeld was the Illinois governor who pardoned the anarchists wrongly convicted of the Haymarket bombing in 1886, a decision that cost him his political career. Past winners of the award include Kartemquin Films, Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools, reporters Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky, and Wendy Kaminer, a free-speech activist and lawyer.