Each summer, the Newberry Library presents the John Peter Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award at its annual 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. During the 2015 Bughouse Square Debates on Saturday, July 25, the Newberry will confer the Altgeld Award upon Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer, social critic, and long-time defender of free speech and civil liberties—most recently on college campuses.
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 Slate.com.
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.
Kaminer embodies these ideals herself, and occasionally must bravely defend her own free expression. In the fall of 2014, Kaminer participated as a panelist for a Smith College alumni program on free speech and the liberal arts. When the student newspaper published a transcript of the event, however, some of Kaminer’s remarks had been censored and replaced with editorial tags identifying certain words as “slurs.” In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Kaminer re-affirmed the importance of freely discussing potentially painful topics, noting “the obvious difference between quoting a word in the context of discussing language, literature, or prejudice and hurling it as an epithet.”
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, and Chicago Reader reporters Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky.