A Rain Check on Free Speech | On Culture | Chicago Reader

A Rain Check on Free Speech 

A Naperville bookstore owner thinks better of canceling a Bill Ayers appearance—and invites the community to discuss.

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It's safe to say that Becky Anderson, of Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, has already expressed more regret over her decision to cancel an April 8 book signing by former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers than Ayers has over the bombings his group carried out 40 years ago.

Now a professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, riding a new wave of infamy because of his connection to President Obama, Ayers has said his only major regret is that his band of extremists didn't do more to stop the Vietnam war. Anderson, who dumped the event a week before it was scheduled to happen, caving in the face of a storm of protest (as did Naperville North High School, where Ayers was also to speak), says she regretted her choice even as she made it—and it's been eating at her ever since. "We agonized over this," she says. "This is not who we are. This is not what we represent. We felt like we were betraying who we are as booksellers, letting some people put fear into us. We consider our [store] a place of ideas and education and free speech, and we let others cow us into giving that up.

"The school district was getting hundreds of calls and we were getting vicious, threatening calls and e-mails—a constant barrage—telling us things like to increase our insurance," Anderson explains. "Our employees were concerned about coming to work, and we started to think, 'With the school down, maybe we should let go of this one and invite him back later.' In retrospect, I think we were too hasty." She now believes "it was probably a very small, vocal minority that was calling, because once we told a few people that we'd canceled the event, the [harassment] miraculously stopped."

In an effort to set things right, Anderson has scheduled a "town-hall meeting" for Monday, April 20 (7 PM, 123 W. Jefferson, Naperville). A panel will discuss the incident in terms of "what the first amendment really is—freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of the written word," she says. They've invited members of the community, including the Naperville chief of police and the city councilman who sent Anderson a message that she says advised her that "free speech hinges on what the morals, ideals, and standards of our community should be." (The councilman declined.)

"We want all factions to be represented," Anderson says, adding that they're having trouble finding representatives from the formerly vocal anti-Ayers contingent. "Most people who were sending us these horrible messages would not give us their names. But those who did we've invited for a civil discourse on what this really means. I want people coming from both sides, so we can have a dialogue. But I have a feeling they're going to be the chickens that won't show up."

Anderson says she'll also be reinviting Bill Ayers to the store at a later date.

A Film Fest for Evanston

Ten years ago filmmakers Kathy Berger and Andrea Leland sold the Evanston Public Library on the need for local screenings of independent films. The EPL agreed to provide space and let them operate as a library program, and ReelTime was born. Leland left in 2003 to do more of her own work, and this year Berger and her current partner Ines Sommer are moving out from under the library's umbrella to establish their own nonprofit media-arts organization, Percolator Films.

While continuing to host monthly ReelTime programs at the library and Northwestern University's Block Museum, Percolator, which got a three-year, $30,000 grant from the Evanston Community Foundation, will produce its own films (a documentary about torture survivors is in the works), and is launching Evanston's first film fest, the Talking Pictures Festival, running May 1-3.

The event includes 13 features and five programs of shorts—all independent work done since 2007—culled from 75 national and international submissions. It'll be presented at four venues: the library, the Block, Boocoo, and for late-night programs After Hours Movie Rentals. Highlights include Sita Sings the Blues, Nina Paley's animated interpretation of The Ramayana; Pray the Devil Back to Hell, about the Liberian grassroots movement that brought down a dictator; and Jodie Mack's 29-minute stop-motion animation with original music, Yard Work Is Hard Work. Details at talkingpicturesfestival.org.

Why Rent?

Sure, it's a testament to Chicago's prominence as a theater center that Actors Equity wants to own a building here, but it's also a sign of the current buyers' market in real estate. The theatrical union—which owns the Times Square land its New York headquarters stands on and currently leases its Central Region offices at 125 S. Clark—closed this month on a four-story brick Chicago-fire survivor at 557 W. Randolph that was listed at $3.2 million. The price: $2,050,000, in cash.

Originally three buildings—the earliest, dating to 1855, built and occupied by the grandfather and namesake of Depression-era Illinois governor Henry Horner—the 21,000-square-foot structure will provide two floors of space for Equity and two floors of office rentals. Equity assistant executive director Steven DiPaola says their current 22-person Chicago staff is likely to expand by 10 to 15 positions—mostly in IT, which they've been outsourcing. The Chicago facility will also house Equity's archives and some accounting work now handled in New York, along with an expanded audition center.

The union's revenue sources include dues and initiation fees, as well as income from a "conservatively managed" $29 million portfolio. With an annual budget of $17 million, it employs 135 people in four cities. "Not only is this an investment we got a good deal on, where the value will increase, but it's helping us eliminate a rental expense of more than $200,000 from our budget and replace it with an asset that'll bring in rental income," DiPaola says. Equity plans to plow as much as $1.5 million into the building and is hoping for arts-related tenants. Its own credit union is likely to move in, too.

Emerging Again

Administrators from six Chicago arts organizations are pulling together to relaunch the local branch of the Emerging Leaders Network, a resource-sharing idea fostered by Americans for the Arts. ELN Chicago lapsed into inactivity a year or so ago, but there's a sense that it's needed now more than ever, says Leigh Fagin of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs. Fagin and colleagues from the Illinois Arts Alliance, Illinois Arts Council, Old Town School of Folk Music, Lookingglass Theatre Company, and League of Chicago Theatres have called a meeting for April 23 at 5:30 PM at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington), to gauge interest and help shape the revived organization. It looks like they've touched a nerve: the group booked a room that holds 90, e-mailed announcements, and at press time, they were closing in on full capacity.

Reservations are mandatory. RSVP to Fagin at leigh-fagin@cityofchicago.org.v

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