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Welcome to modern-day 'Speakers' Corner'

The wonderful thing about talk media is that people get to voice their ideas and feelings. It used to be that talk radio and a letter to the editor was the only place people could have that opportunity. Before the Internet was in almost every household and access to multimedia was a few finger clicks away, people had radio and talk radio, in specific. Now, we have the Internet, where anyone can give audio/video lectures on their personal site or upload something to YouTube. Then the world is free to partake in the debate or not.

The White House has some very smart social-media types, and they have recognized that the former town square of the late 1800s morphed into radio and then talk radio. In England, way before anyone conceived of the Internet, there was (and still is) Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, where people came to express their viewpoints and get others to listen to them. Visiting Speakers’ Corner in 1966, I remember a man with a tattooed body standing on a box and attracting a crowd. My fellow adolescents and I marveled at the crowds he attracted and how he expressed his views.

Taking advantage of what began as people talking about their ideas and passions, Whitehouse.gov has an area of its site for petitions. It calls that part of the site “We the People.”  When a petition has enough signatures, then the White House will pay attention once it reaches the signature threshold. There has been much made about the threshold of signatures needed for review by policy officials at the White House’s site. Currently the threshold stands at 100,000 signatures in 30 days.

So, what kinds of petitions have made it? The results may surprise you! One of the past petitions on the site was for the White House beer recipe. The response to the petition does not say how many requests the White House had but clearly a lot. They labeled it “Ale to the Chief” and used White House honey from first lady Michele Obama’s bee hives on the South Lawn. Other petitions that have made the signature threshold and have a response on the White House website are: Reforming the Postal Service, Reducing Gun Violence, Freedom of Speech and Religion, Wall Street Reform and Legalization of Marijuana. On marijuana reform, the White House did not reinvent the wheel; it took its response from a question the president was asked in an interview with Barbara Walters.

As of this writing, there were 146 open petitions. A few petitions are written by right-wingers (Don’t allow the FDA to regulate premium cigars and invite Neal Boortz to spend an hour with the president) and many, many from the political left. I also counted six petitions on keeping or deporting Justin Bieber, while only one of the 146 open petitions addressed Edward Snowden. What does that say about our priorities and concerns as a country?

Showing that concerns die slowly, there were two petitions addressing Sept. 11 and the investigation of it, and another to recognize how the Beatles changed music 50 years ago.  People pay a lot of attention to the past, be it a conspiracy theory or our musical interests.

There is also a great concern for animals, from deer hunting to whales to dogs and polar bears.

Although the threshold for response was met in August of 2013, a petition to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a hate group has not garnered an official response yet from the White House. The petition sits on the active part of the site but no response from the White House. Perhaps we will have to have someone record a phone conversation from members of the State Department (like what happened this week with Victoria Nuland) to find out what response the White House has to that very-hard-to-answer petition.

My current favorite is to make Election Day a holiday. That would be a great idea, but it will need more than 99,000 signatures by March 4 to get an official response.

The discourse we hear on talk media is not what you get on the petition section of Whitehouse.gov, but it is a quick trip through what a many sectors of our country and the concerns of the people. It is worthwhile to check out and get a sampling of America. I never though Americans would be weighing in on Justin Bieber rather than Edward Snowden. I await to see if anyone in the Obama admiration will have a policy person respond to that one!

The petitions are a great idea, even if we can be dismayed by some of the concerns displayed by them. A modern-day “Speakers’ Corner” it is a fun and interesting place to spend some time.

Media wishing to interview Ellen Ratner, please contact [email protected].