Proposed free speech monument gets mixed reaction

By Sarah Lechner
U-WIRE Washington Bureau
February 21, 2001

A City Council proposal to build a giant chalkboard across from the city hall in Charlottesville, Va. as a monument to free speech has caused mixed reaction throughout the small central Virginia town.

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, a non-profit organization devoted to the protection of free speech, proposed raising $150,000 for a nearly 56-foot wall, tentatively called the “Community Chalkboard.”

The chalkboard would be located across from City Hall and the messages that people post would not be restricted.

“The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression proposes to bring tangible and daily embodiment of the concept of free expression to the citizens of Charlottesville in the form of a monument commemorating that all-important freedom,” said the center’s Web site of its proposal.

The Center said if the proposal passes, only chalk would be allowed on the board and it would be erased once a week. No posters or other signs would be permitted.

A Feb. 5 public hearing over the fate of the chalkboard brought discussion, as community members debated the merits and drawbacks of the space, which some said could be a forum for obscenity.

Concern over the content of the writings was debated against the necessity of the right to freedom of speech.

The Center said it envisions the chalkboard as a place for the public to express their views on political issues, send messages to members of the city government or to draw.

“Local schools could incorporate field trips to the wall as part of their instruction on civics and civil rights,” the Center said on its Web site. “The possibilities of positive returns from this design are endless.”

University of Virginia student newspaper columnist Elizabeth Managan said in her Tuesday Cavalier Daily column the chalkboard is “unnecessary and detrimental” to the town.

“With the new chalkboard, individuals can force others to see their spontaneous ranting and ravings, as opposed to well-thought discourse,” Managan wrote in her column. “More than likely, the truly thoughtful and constructive expressions of opinion about city problems will be outnumbered by juvenile and petulant remarks similar to those found in junior high bathrooms.”

Managan told U-WIRE that she had not heard much discussion of the chalkboard on campus until The Washington Post published an article about the debate Feb. 11.

She said she does not think the monument is a large issue for UVA students because the location of the proposed chalkboard is far from campus.

“If you have a legitimate message you need to get out you can do it in other ways,” she said.

The Center responded to claims that the board would serve as a place for offensive speech by countering that anyone could respond by writing on the chalkboard or erasing the section.

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