Chalk one up for Jefferson

Founder's town asks folks to put ideas on the board

March 17, 2001|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - Thomas Jefferson inspired the project that, 174 years after his death, has roused his hometown: a monument to free speech. But the opportunity to let people write whatever they want on a big chalkboard downtown has some townsfolk worried about what their neighbors might say.

And those fears have dominated the debate over the proposed monument, a 7-foot-high slate chalkboard that would be built on public property across the street from Charlottesville's City Hall.

When the City Council held a hearing on the proposal last month, the public overwhelmingly supported the project, sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. Political conservatives and punk rockers backed the community chalkboard.

"It takes me back to the days of yore in England, where you could go to Hyde Park and get on your soapbox and talk away," said Dave Robinson, a retired Marine who staffs the city's tourism office a few blocks from City Hall.

Home to Jefferson's Monticello and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville boasts historic roots, country charm, erudite sophistication and the occasional celebrity who prefers the rolling countryside to city life.

"The appeal to the monument to me personally is that it creates a stage for artistic expression in both words and images," actress Sissy Spacek, an area resident, wrote in support of the project.

A monument to free speech, "it's a natural for us," said J. Blake Caravati, Charlottesville's part-time mayor. "You hear a lot of talk [here] about quality of life. This is quality of the public realm. We very much value the public realm."

If the City Council votes Monday to lease land to the Jefferson Center for the monument, the organization will begin raising the $150,000 needed to build the chalkboard. The plan is to landscape the site and offer programs on free speech and the responsibilities that come with it.

But Caravati admits that not everyone in Charlottesville is as excited about the prospect of the chalkboard as he is.

Speaking up

Since the Feb. 5 public hearing, letters and e-mails opposing the plan have arrived at City Hall. They raise concerns that the chalkboard will become a repository for the objectionable and the obscene, the raunchy and the racist.

The "what ifs" have led to the "what thens" and the suggestion that some would prefer to debate the First Amendment in a classroom than exercise it on a street corner slate.

But the interactive nature of the project is what sets it apart from a traditional monument, say its designers.

Architects Robert B. Winstead and Peter O'Shea came up with the winning idea over dinner. Except for the Statute of Liberty, Winstead said, there are few monuments to ideas. The blackboard is a universal image that incorporates the notion of temporality, he says. Ideas can be expressed over other musings. Statements can be erased by man or washed away by the rain.

Broad design

Winstead said he and O'Shea didn't want their design "to be a snapshot of a particular moment or a person but a continuum."

And that continuum may very well incorporate phrases, drawings or ideas that offend. "Many people think that individuals will be able to slander on the monument or threaten other people on the monument," said J. Joshua Wheeler of the Jefferson Center. "They think the monument will give them some kind of immunity when, in fact, slander and libel are outside the First Amendment."

But Wheeler believes that positive speech will outweigh offensive remarks.

Kevin Lynch, an electrical contractor and city councilman, said the chalkboard proposal has already enlivened "the debate on what the parameter of public speech ought to be."

But he added, "I'd be a lot more supportive of this if I wasn't in the City Council. There are so many more things that need public attention."

The future of the local elementary school, a living wage for workers, community policing - Lynch said he could go on.

"I like the idea of calling it a community chalkboard," he said, "because it sets up a certain expectation of how it should be used. But when you call it a monument to free speech you're almost pushing someone to test the boundaries of free expression."

Lynch said students at Charlottesville High School have a graffiti wall on which they pen their thoughts or sketch their imagined demons. But school guards police the wall - obscene, threatening or profane language is removed.

Chris Wilmer, an arts advocate in Charlottesville, applauds the idea of a monument to free speech, but he questions the vehicle for it.

"You're going to put a chalkboard at the end of the street with chalk?" he asked. "How many profane statements are you going to see per day?"

And yet both Lynch and Wilmer say Charlottesville is a civic-minded city with a penchant for civility. "This is a very engaged town. People take civic participation really seriously," said Lynch.

Positive points

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