A wall designed for free speech

May 23, 2001|By Ellen Goodman

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Josh Wheeler walks me to the busy traffic island that separates the local Merrill Lynch office from the nondescript City Hall. On one side of the island, money talks. On the other side politics is debated.

Smack in the middle is the designated site for what will soon become something quite remarkable. A monument to the First Amendment, a public welcome mat to free expression.

Mr. Wheeler, a tall, friendly bear of a man, walks up and down, measuring off the monument that will be as simple and ephemeral and controversial as free speech itself. It will be a chalkboard more than 7 feet tall and 50 feet long.

Here, any citizen will be able to pick up a piece of chalk and write. Anything. Freely.

Mr. Wheeler, who shepherded this project under the auspices of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, is still somewhat amazed that this monument got final approval. After all, he reminds me with only a half-smile, if the First Amendment itself were up for a vote today, it might never pass.

These days, we tend to think of free speech as one of those troublesome legacies of the Constitution that we have to tolerate but not always enthusiastically.

We believe in free expression and defend it from the sort of random censorship that keeps Judy Blume or Maya Angelou out of the library. Indeed, the Jefferson Center distributes Muzzle Awards every spring to censors like those who cover up the private parts of a public statue in Sacramento, Calif., or slice pages out of a controversial play in Jacksonville, Fla.

But free speech often conjures up some reluctant defense of pornography or hate speech. It comes to the public eye or courtroom with defendants like Larry Flynt or the Ku Klux Klan.

We may defend free speech, but invite it?

That's what is so refreshing about this particular monument. When the Jefferson Center set out to create a physical paean to freedom of expression, they had only a vague idea of "a people's monument."

It was two young architects, Peter O'Shea and Robert Winstead, who came up with the simple and dramatic idea of a chalkboard.

"We started with the idea that for the project to be successful it had to be confrontational," Mr. O'Shea says. It wasn't to be a static place where people would bow to free speech, but a fluid, dynamic, controversial space where they would exercise it.

Mr. Wheeler and the architects thought it would be difficult to get approval even in the heart of Jefferson country. And at times, the long and very public debate in Charlottesville seemed to mirror the debate about free speech itself.

Concerns were raised about swear words and swastikas. People wondered about graffiti and hate speech. Questions were asked about what should be said in public and what should be read by children.

"People were afraid of what people would say," Mr. Wheeler says. The monument backers understood that: "We're not naive. We do envision the occasional racial slur or offensive comment. But we see 20 people responding as well."

Indeed, the response to the wall itself was enthusiastic as well as worried. Novelist Rita Mae Brown, who lives nearby, even imagined the wall impishly as a "a high-class Gossip Central."

But the City Council was asked to give personal approval of a wall of criticism right outside its workplace. Finally, and even bravely, this council said yes. What remains now is to pay the price of this emblem of free speech, a tag of about $250,000 to be raised by private funds.

Mr. Wheeler says that the first lesson has come from the process itself. Free expression is not something chiseled in marble to be admired from afar. It's as messy and as temporary and as powerful as the debate over this small space.

Not long from now, this corner will be a designated place to exercise that rough muscle of democracy. Opinions and arguments will be erased and renewed and rebutted. The people of Charlottesville will get to see what people think. The handwriting on the wall.

And the rest of us will have a monument to a country in which free expression requires nothing more -- or less -- than the willingness to step up to the blackboard.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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