Taking a minute to speak out — to a corner, and the world

Jun 18, 2015

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment 

What would you say if you got 60 seconds to speak to the world?

At noon recently, on a hot and muggy day in the heart of Washington, D.C., the world heard everything from birthday wishes to a call to national action in education and housing to a reminder that developed nations need to pay attention to violence and poverty in small African nations.

And the world heard one person who took the moment to say that he didn't have any particular cause or group to praise or criticize, but that — in the shadow of a 75-foot marble plaque on the front of the Newseum that contains the First Amendment's 45 words — he just wanted to speak out on behalf of his right to ... speak out.

The occasion had its own hashtag, of course — #TakeA Minute — as in "take a minute" to speak on whatever you wanted, for a maximum of 60 seconds. As ground rules go, pretty minimal. While some walkers at the intersection of Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue decided not to interrupt their day, a good number did, taking to a podium with a small hand-held loudspeaker to be heard over the traffic. For some, the emotion behind their words was palpable, if not always at the upper ends of audible.

In part, the June 15 event marked the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta — sealed eight centuries ago on the very day, as a group of English barons forced King John to recognize an initial set of legal rights regarding property, taxes and religious freedom and fair trial by peers.

The criticism in vogue today is to note those rights applied only to those elites, and this first agreement was in place for only about 30 days, until annulled by the pope — all true. But as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, leading British legal experts and others also point out, the document — as much for what it stands for as for what it said — is a part of the foundation of the legal system in both nations, and inspired doctrines that include the right to "speak truth to power."

For one street corner speaker, truth to power came in the form of a question: "Why doesn't anyone use left-turn signals anymore?" For a young man — with his parents standing to the side — it was enough to declare a love for pizza and a delight in touring Washington, D.C., sites.

But for two speakers, both from African nations, it was one minute each to ask their fellow citizens of the world to stop and consider the health issues, violence and poverty plaguing not just their homelands, but much of the planet. Their words will travel far beyond the corner; video news staff fromUSA Today's online news operation and from Voice of America, the independent multimedia broadcaster funded by the U.S. government, were on hand to take their views and do interviews once they departed the free-speech podium.

Worth noting is that many more of the speakers were "for" something than "against." And in today's contentious world of callous commentary, vitriolic exchanges on the Web and foul-mouthed and anonymous verbal salvos delivered via social media, it was interesting to see people willing to share their private views publicly and in person.

The "marketplace of ideas" is a concept that both predates and was built upon the ideas put to a calfskin declaration in 1215 in Runnymede meadow by a reluctant king who had to — temporarily at least — concede to warring barons that even he had to follow some law.

Hawking ones' views and intellectual wares in that marketplace is today both made easier and more complicated by new technology that makes us the most interconnected society ever.

So, if it's your want, raise a glass of ale, mead or your favorite beverage in salute to those who sealed the Magna Carta some 800 years ago — to the founders of our nation who some 200-plus years in the past found in it the inspiration for our core freedoms — and to those who found time a few days ago to speak their minds aloud at the Newseum's corner sidewalk.

Free speech all around! Let's give it a go for at least another 800 years!

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org.

The USA Today video report on the #TakeAMinute event is available athttp://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/2015/06/15/28782627/