The prime time television slot during the Oct. 11 vice-presidential debate at Centre College is reserved for Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, but those with their own message will get their 15 minutes at Speakers Park.
Designating an area for the public was one of the things Centre officials think they got right during the 2000 debate. Clarence Wyatt, a history professor and co-chairman of the debate steering committee, said the school’s use of the concept was such a success it has become a mandatory part of any successful bid to host one of the debates.
“As an institution of higher learning, we thought it was important to create a space where the thoughtful and civil exchange of ideas could take place,” Wyatt said. “It gives organizations or those with a cause a place to engage the public and distribute their literature and the public a place to hear about a wide range of issues of interest.”
Free speech or First Amendment zones had been used at major events — political or otherwise — in the past, but they often evoked thoughts of chain link cages. While the Newlin Hall stage was occupied with partisan pugilism of Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman during the 2000 debate, officials wanted to offer a few more amenities to people sharing their views outside.
Speakers Park will open at noon the day of the debate at the practice football field on Russell Street between Beatty Avenue and College Street, a few hundred yards away from the actual debate site. It will be fenced off but open to the public and will include a stage and public address system. There will be a screen for viewing the debate at 9 p.m.
There will be spaces for tables to distribute literature, which also will be placed in the media hall for what are expected to be hundreds of American and foreign journalists to view. Wyatt said the area will conservatively be able to hold a couple of thousand people.
So far, Wyatt said, 15 groups have signed up for 15-minute time slots at the microphone, a number he expects to grow rapidly. The organizations run the gamut, from ones with international reach to those with a strictly local focus. Wyatt said the antipoverty organization ONE, which was co-founded by U2 frontman Bono, has secured podium time. So has the Boyle County Public Library.
Another group with concerns closer to home is Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. The group was founded 31 years ago primarily to deal with issues of fair taxation but has branched out to address mountain top removal mining, generating alternative energy sources and restoring voting rights for felons. KFTC member Daniel Morgan of Danville said the group plans to secure a speaking time for each of those topics.
Morgan has been active in the KFTC and helped establish the Wilderness Trail chapter to include Boyle, Garrard, Lincoln and Mercer counties earlier this month. He said KFTC’s membership didn’t want to miss the chance to educate a wider audience and approved signing up for speaking slots at a recent meeting.
“With the debate being in Danville, we wanted to make sure Kentuckians have a voice and issues facing Kentucky are heard with this rare national platform,” Morgan said.
The 2000 debate and the flourish of free speech at Speakers Park made a lasting impression on Morgan as a sophomore at Boyle County High School. He has vivid memories of people marching from downtown and the fervor of the groups making their message heard at Speaker’s Park.
“I was amazed there was that much ferocity and commitment involved,” said Morgan, who compared the scene to another free speech zone he visited on a later trip to London, England, known as Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. “It was a unique chance to see national politics played out in my hometown.”
Because of heightened security, any demonstrations likely will be kept out of range of the actual debate hall. Wyatt said the park and protests are covered by the security plan put together by federal, state and local authorities.
“The speakers can reach an audience much more effectively than they would at an event out in town or elsewhere. It also provides a venue that suits the needs and desires of those groups, in a way that fits into the overall security plan.”
For information about how to register, visit http://www.centre.edu/centredebate2012/speakers-park.