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City OKs Jefferson Center's free speech wall

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City OKs Jefferson Center's free speech wall

By Dan Heuchert

Charlottesville City Council on March 19 approved a "community chalkboard," proposed by U.Va.'s Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression as a monument to free speech. The vote was 3-1 with one abstention, giving the center a three-year lease that must be renewed annually thereafter.

The monument — designed by U.Va. alumni Peter O'Shea, a faculty member in the landscape architecture department, and Robert B. Winstead — is envisioned as a 50- to 70-foot-long, 7-foot-high blackboard with large chalk trays, fronted by a speaker's podium, to be located across from City Hall at the east end of the Downtown Mall. Passers-by will be free to write their own messages, or may comment upon — or even erase — those written by others.

The proposal won a contest sponsored by the center, but City Council must approve the final design before it is built.

The debate over the chalkboard drew media attention from BBC radio, the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun, among others. Supporters — including such noted locals as actress Sissy Spacek, poet and U.Va. English faculty member Rita Dove and writer Rita Mae Brown — lauded the monument for its creativity in actively incorporating speech into the design. Detractors feared that the chalkboard would become a public forum for obscenity and hate speech. The debate itself became a lesson in the role of free expression in public policy-making, noted J. Joshua Wheeler, associate director of the center.

The Jefferson Center's next step is raising the $200,000 needed to build and maintain the monument, a process Wheeler estimated would take up to two years.


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