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  • The Newberry Library’s freedom of speech award is named for former governor John Peter Altgeld, who granted clemency to anarchists rounded up after the Haymarket bombing.

The Newberry Library will stage its annual salute to society’s trouble-making element this Saturday in Bughouse Square, a traditional gathering place for unruly rabble.

The Soapbox Debates begin at 1 PM in the square, aka Washington Square Park (across the street from the Newberry), and although a list of speakers eager to hurl their invective has been lined up in advance, impromptu remarks by impassioned onlookers will be welcomed. So will the spontaneous critiques that the Newberry calls “good-natured heckling by the audience.”

The program begins at noon with a reenactment of the orations by Brutus and Marc Antony in Julius Caesar. The audience is encouraged to join in as Rome’s “outspoken citizenry,” the rabble already favored by Shakespeare with lines such as “Methinks there is much reason in his sayings” but capable of so much more.

Another highlight of the afternoon will be the presentation of the annual John Peter Altgeld Award for Freedom of Speech. Altgeld’s immortality in Chicago has its roots in the 1886 Haymarket Riot, a peaceful labor rally until police showed up and began shoving people around. Then someone threw a bomb, and when the dust settled seven police officers and several civilians were dead. Eight anarchists were convicted of murder although some of them hadn’t even been at the rally; the theory was that they’d conspired with the unknown assailants. Four of the defendants were hanged and a fifth killed himself.

Altgeld was elected governor in 1892, and in ’93 he granted clemency to the three surviving defendants on the grounds that their trial had been a travesty. Hailed by history, Altgeld’s action wasn’t welcomed at the time by Chicago’s loftier elements, and he was defeated for reelection in ’96.

But his name today enjoys the kind of cachet that makes an award in his honor a fine thing to have, and this year’s recipients are Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky of the Reader. They’ve won, says the Newberry, “for their outspoken, persistent, and uncompromising reportage of significant political and economic corruption in Chicago and Illinois.”