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Free speech is guaranteed; listeners aren't

Activists, dissenters and others on St. Paul's Open Forum Stage find a meager audience for their messages.

September 02, 2008|James Hohmann | Times Staff Writer

ST. PAUL, MINN. — As he drove from Kansas on Sunday, 79-year-old Stephen Anderson hoped he could share his message about the dangers of the growing national debt with delegates entering the Republican National Convention.

But when it was his turn to speak at the Open Forum Stage, Anderson was disappointed that about 100 yards and three security gates stood between him and the delegates at the Xcel Energy Center.

His meager audience never grew to more than a dozen people.

"Free speech is being relegated to these out-of-the-way places, so your message doesn't get out to anybody," said Anderson, a rancher from Alma, near Topeka.

But he was happy talking as long as someone was listening. He compared his time on the stage to feeding cattle on the ranch: "If only part of the cattle herd shows up, I still give 'em the whole load."

It was the first day for the Open Forum Stage, St. Paul's offer to activists, dissenters and anyone else who wants to deliver a public message during the GOP gathering here.

Some 48 people or groups are scheduled to climb onto a modified trailer to talk about whatever they want over loudspeakers. The forum is open 12 hours a day for all four days of the convention.

Monday opened at 8 a.m. with two people lecturing the mostly empty street on the importance of unity between Ireland and the Americas. A student was slated to read from his dissertation. A mime even snagged a slot.

The Xcel Energy Center was visible, but noise from the two loudspeakers was partly drowned out when helicopters passed overhead.

As many as eight cheerful employees of St. Paul's Parks and Recreation Department, which supervises the stage, helped check in the people scheduled to appear.

"I don't think you could get closer," said department official Matt Reinartz, putting the best face on the location.

Fellow Kansan Darrel King, 65, who met Anderson when they volunteered for Ross Perot's campaign in 1992, learned about the venue online and called the city about signing up Anderson.

He videotaped his friend's speech Monday and hoped to get it online.

A white-haired woman with a sign opposing Republican John McCain set out a folding chair and watched Anderson's speech.

Halfway through his presentation, as Anderson railed against the World Trade Organization, 15 police officers in riot gear marched along the outside perimeter of the black fence, batons and plastic handcuffs ready, preparing for protests later in the day.

The free-speech stage evolved from a concept by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman to allow a wide range of voices to be heard in connection with the convention.

San Diego set up a similar outlet for visitors to the 1996 Republican convention. Since then, speakers and protesters at other party conventions have complained that opportunities for public speech were overly restricted.

David May, 67, who lives in a suburb south of St. Paul, spoke after Anderson. The former child welfare worker offered what he called a "lengthy apology for all the wrongs Christians have done, starting with the Crusades."

He persuaded his wife, son and grandson to drive up with him -- "so I have somebody to talk to," he said.

Charlene, his wife of 42 years, found shade in the shadow of the black fence. "It's fun to be up here on the fringe of a historical event," she said.


Times staff writer P.J. Huffstutter contributed to this report.

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