MSP's Freedom of Expression booths offer everyone a soapbox

At the airport, there are little known spaces dedicated to freedom of expression.
Gil Tornes, 73, and his wife, , spent time together behind a "Freedom of Expression Booth," at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport in hopes of spreading the news about the Jehovah's Witness religion, Friday, March 14, 2016 in Bloomington, MN.
Curt McGee looks up from his Sudoku book, and Gil Tornes sets aside his sandwich. They have a visitor.

It’s not that visitors are unusual. McGee and Tornes, Jehovah’s Witnesses, get a lot of them during their shared Friday shift at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. But it’s rare that visitors to the airport’s Freedom of Expression booth want to talk about something other than directions.


Set on either end of the baggage claim in Terminal 1, two easily overlooked Freedom of Expression booths are the airport’s way of granting the public its right to free speech in a government-owned building while maintaining order and traffic flow. By securing a free permit, anyone who wants to can reserve time to speak his or her mind to travelers waiting for their luggage.

“We find it quite useful,” said McGee, who at 73 has mostly retired from traditional Jehovah’s Witnesses door-knocking shifts. “We answer a lot of questions, “Where’s the bathroom?,” things we can point them to.”

On the occasion someone comes to talk to them about their religion, McGee and Tornes are ready. They keep an iPad preloaded with the Bible, and the gray booth is covered with pamphlets asking: “What is the key to a happy family life?” and “How do you view the future?”

“People traveling have spiritual needs,” said McGee, who recalled one encounter with a man who was looking for directions and mistakenly wandered to their booth. A little while later, he came back. The man had just gotten a call from his sister, telling him she had cancer.
Gil Tornes, 73, and his wife, , spent time together behind a "Freedom of Expression Booth," at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport in hopes of spreading the news about the Jehova's Witness religion, Friday, March 14, 2016 in Bloomington, MN.

“He remembered we were here,” McGee said. “We provided comfort from the scriptures for him.”

After a brief exchange with a fellow Jehovah’s Witness who was dropping off her son at the airport, Tornes, 76, went back to nibbling on his chipotle chicken sandwich — made by McGee — and flipped through the latest issue of Watchtower, the Witness magazine, on his iPad. He’s been coming here every other Friday for 10 years, “maybe more,” he said...
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