The buzz in Public Square got so loud that City Council resolved to stop it. The speechmakers near Old Stone Church — suffragists, temperance advocates, socialists, anarchists — annoyed businesspeople and distracted the judge in the courthouse. They mouthed off and provoked fights, a councilman claimed one night in 1902.
Others agreed. Only established religions and political parties should be issued speech permits, another councilman argued, not "any old crank." Anarchists should be "suppressed with severest measures," warned a third. The council demanded to know who had issued permits to the "would-be statesmen" and "agitators." It asked Mayor Tom L. Johnson's administration to "put a stop forever to this disgraceful disorder."
The mayor spoke. He'd given the permits.
"It's a dangerous thing to bottle up that kind of wrath," argued Johnson, the wealthy businessman turned populist reformer. "It is much better to let them talk it right out. It won't do nearly as much harm that way."
Johnson encouraged the speechmakers by setting up speaker's platforms in the square's northwest quadrant and renovating the area to handle rallying crowds.
Today, a bronze Tom Johnson presides over that quarter of Public Square, as he has for 99 years. Most days, he sits in quiet solitude. Clevelanders eat lunch or wait for buses nearby, unaware that soapbox debates once raged there. His statue represents one of Cleveland's best traditions, though a neglected one. An inscription on Johnson's pedestal notes that he's "located on the spot he dedicated to the freedom of speech."
Public Square's Tom Johnson quadrant is Cleveland's version of Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park, the traditional spot where anyone can hold a protest and speak freely, a promise that still carries legal weight.
But soon, Johnson will be dug up. Cleveland is about to spend $30 million to remake Public Square as a single park, erase two blocks of Ontario Street and narrow Superior Avenue. Noted landscape architect James Corner proposes to move Johnson's statue across Superior to make way for a picnic hill. Johnson and the square's free-speech tradition will be relocated like a replanted tree, wedged near an outdoor cafe and relegated to a space smaller than the spray fountain nearby. The change will make the inscription on Johnson's pedestal ("on the spot") into a little white lie. It risks diluting the square's longtime significance as a public forum.
If I were remaking Public Square, I wouldn't touch Johnson's statue. I'd redesign around him. But Cleveland's establishment has gotten behind Corner's plan and is rushing it along, with little debate, to finish in time for the 2016 Republican National Convention. So while we reinvent the heart of our city, shouldn't we talk about what Johnson's legacy means and find ways to rekindle his thirst for vigorous, healthy debate?
Historians consider Johnson Cleveland's greatest mayor, a modernizer who reformed City Hall and championed the 1903 Group Plan, which gathered Cleveland's civic buildings around the downtown malls. His crusade against the local electrical monopoly led to the founding of Cleveland Public Power.
Johnson's signature was his tent meetings. Held throughout the city, they captured people's attention more intensely than newspapers. Their informality encouraged participation. Johnson and his allies took questions shouted from the audience. "This heckling is the most valuable form of political education," Johnson wrote in his autobiography, My Story. Questions kept candidates from bloviating, forced them to take stands on the record and held them to pre-election pledges.
After Johnson became mayor in May 1901, he encouraged open debate on Public Square. Drawn in 1796 as a New England-style town commons, it was the gathering place where 19th-century Clevelanders had paid respects at President Abraham Lincoln's coffin and rallied against slavery. A speaker's rostrum was erected in its northwest quadrant in 1872, a tradition Johnson built on with wooden platforms during election season, then sandstone rostrums. By 1908, huge forum crowds had trampled the grass, so the mayor replaced the sod with gravel.
After Johnson's 1911 death, when the city commissioned a memorial, the best location was obvious. City Council approved it in 1912, noting that the memorial would preserve Public Square's northwest quadrant "as a forum for public discussion."
Since then, Johnson's statue has hosted a 1930 protest to support the unemployed, a 1937 rally for striking steel workers, 1960s rallies against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War, and motorcyclists' support-the-troops gatherings during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. An activist for the homeless camped out there for a weekslong 1990 fast.
In 2011, the Occupy movement pitched tents there. When the city evicted the activists weeks later, they sued. Though they lost at the Ohio Supreme Court, having Johnson's statue as a witness helped their case.
Now Cleveland is poised to uproot its free-speech tradition. This summer, Corner told the City Club that he wants to line up Tom Johnson's and Moses Cleaveland's statues to "make sense of" the sight line along Ontario, which ends at the Cuyahoga County Courthouse. He wants to put a speaker's terrace of stone steps at Johnson's new perch.
"The park has to defer to the significance of Ontario," Corner told me afterward. "We locate Speaker's Terrace on that axis, in a sense putting it in relationship to the courthouse — two stations of democracy, if you like."
More Johnson-style democracy would benefit Cleveland today, starting with the plan to remake Public Square. If we could reanimate Johnson's statue, he'd have some tough questions. The champion of 3-cent streetcar fares would ask if the redesign leaves enough room for public transit. He'd question the rush to redo the square before the Republican convention, reminding us that it was built for the city's people, not four-day visitors. He'd ask if the current mayor will guarantee free speech for radical protesters in the square during the convention.
Johnson would favor concerts, picnics, water and trees. He famously pulled "keep off the grass" signs out of city parks. But he'd ask if we understand the square's importance as a place to advocate for improving the city.
If Cleveland adopts Corner's plan, we've got to claim the new speaker's terrace and keep Johnson's tradition alive. The City Club, which dates back to Johnson's Progressive Era, could move some forums to the square. So could organizations experimenting with fresh ways to exchange ideas, from the Civic Commons to PechaKucha Night to Case Western Reserve University's Appreciative Inquiry Commons. Cleveland could emulate the annual Bughouse Square Debates in Chicago's speaker's corner, Washington Square Park, which revive the soapbox talks and healthy heckling of Johnson's day.
Johnson would see little value in our online debates where digital anonymity gives safe harbor to thinly veiled racism, innuendo and hall-of-mirrors impersonations.
He'd call for a tent meeting. Anyone who wants to make Cleveland better is welcome. But you have to show up and say your name. You have to show your face and look each other in the eye.