Free speech doesn't draw a crowdby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
You don't have to have credentials to speak to delegates at the Republican National Convention this week, because the city of St. Paul set up a free speech venue called the open forum stage. It comes complete with a podium, microphone and speakers. You're a block away from the Xcel Center and you can say anything you want and that's just what a few people are doing.
St. Paul, Minn. — Leslie Davis, a self-described environmentalist and perennial candidate for governor, is ready to take his place behind the microphone on the open forum stage.
Months ago, Davis secured one of 48 speaking slots made available during the four days of the convention.
"I thought it was a good opportunity to speak to these hordes of people here at the convention, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to get some footage making my important statements," Davis said.
Whatever your definition of a horde may be, it probably isn't a deserted, half-block long closed city street.
Davis however is undeterred and begins his speech.
"Hello, my name is Leslie Davis and I'm the founder and president of the Earth Protector Environmental Group, based here in Minnesota," he begins.
Davis uses his 50-minute window of podium time to take on Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the city of Minneapolis, and the war on drugs. He also announces his candidacy for Minnesota governor in 2010.
After 30 minutes of speaking to no one, Davis gains a few listeners in the form of lunch time passers by.
John, who's stopping by on company time, says it's worth a few minutes.
"I'm interested in hearing other points of view," he says. "This is not one I exactly agree with, but it's a good one to hear."
John didn't stick around to hear those different points of view for long, within five minutes he was headed back to work.
Matt Rineartz with the city of St. Paul, says in theory the stage is more than just a place for the public to hear these speeches, but also the delegates at the nearby RNC.
"This is an unprecedented opportunity to get within sight and sound of the Xcel Energy Center," Reinartz said. "We're spitting-distance away, it's a great opportunity for folks to come down and express their first ammendment rights of freedom of speech."
While the purpose of the open forum stage is to allow people to speak their mind within earshot of the Xcel center, it is hard to imagine delegates would hear any of what's being said.
Standing halfway between the stage and the Xcel Center, it's hard to hear what's being said.
Stephen Winkles, a Minnesota member of the Irish American Unity Conference, joined the Irish-American group's leader on stage to advocate for the reunification of Ireland.
"My feeling is they're sort of minimizing disruption of the general convention by giving people a chance to talk, but sort of doing it in a way that you're controlled a little bit more than you need to," Winkles said.
But Winkles was disappointed with how his presentation was amplified.
"A speaker always likes to hear volume, it makes them feel good and makes them feel like they're getting somewhere," he said.
Winkles thinks the low turn out here at the freedom forum could be because of the placement of the stage itself. While the set up is outside the RNC's security perimeter, it's on a blocked-off street made into a temporary dead end.
Here's another factor that's affected public turnout - many of the speakers aren't showing up.
But the city staff here at the stage likes to remind people that an individuals right to free speech also includes not speaking at all, and silence, could be the statement they want to make.
- All Things Considered, 09/03/2008, 4:49 p.m.