Before I begin, a quick note: Carol and I will be off on another of our madcap excursions across the country — or part of it — for two weeks or so. One the places we hope to visit is New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I believe it has come back, maybe not all the way, but impressively. And I hope to tell you about it when I return.
Meanwhile, read on here about “Freedom, Expressed.” And later if you like, feel free to fish in the archives in the column to the right and learn about some of my, and Carol’s, other adventures.
This is about freedom and a wall. And it’s not the Berlin Wall.
To the right, you see two women writing on this wall. They’re Egyptians, and they’re a long way from home. The women visited the United States a couple of weeks ago as part of an adult exchange program called “Friendship Force,” in which travelers — or “ambassadors” as the nonpolitical, nonsectarian organization calls them — stay with hosts in any of 60 countries.
According to its Web site, Friendship Force International “serves those who love to explore the world, meet diverse people, and be with them to learn and understand more about their lives and share their own.”
The Egyptian women were visiting with chapter members in Charlottesville, Virginia. And that’s where freedom and the wall come in.
Charlottesville is the hometown of Thomas Jefferson, the author of America’s Declaration of Independence. His friend James Madison, who wrote the first constitutional amendments called the “Bill of Rights,” also lived nearby.
The First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech, is the only permanent inscription on the wall in question.
It’s a giant, two-sided slate chalkboard — reminiscent of a classroom blackboard but much, much larger — called the “Freedom of Expression Monument,” 2 meters high by 18 meters wide, that stands in a little triangular park at one end of Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall.
A steel podium, like the public soap box at London’s Hyde Park, is built into the monument. The monument directly faces City Hall and sculptures of three American founding fathers from the area: Madison, James Monroe (another “founding father” and president), and Jefferson, whose words are said to have inspired the erection of the wall:
The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object.
The idea for what some call the “freedom wall” and others, the “community chalkboard,” originated with the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. It’s a 21-year-old nonprofit organization based in Charlottesville that sees itself as a watchdog of free speech and press.
Robert O’Neill, a former president of the University of Virginia, was the center’s director at the time the wall was being planned. He said, “To capture a quintessentially Jeffersonian concept, truth should be left free to be pursued, so long as there is the opportunity for refutation, rebuttal, and counter-speech. And that exists in abundance on this physical open forum.”
Seeking an innovative concept for a monument to free expression, the Jefferson Center sponsored a contest. The winner was the community chalkboard design by two Charlottesville architects, Robert Winstead and Peter O’Shea. Winstead has said he and his friend had in mind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, where people take rubbings of the names of loved ones and leave mementos.
In other words, he told me, they wanted more than something to look at and admire.
We have lots of monuments to heroic figures and to great events in our history. But almost all of them are kind of object monuments meant to be viewed from afar and not really interacted with.
The wall’s creators were unapologetic about the possibility that not just noble speech and civic discourse — but also obscenity and venomous thought might be written for all to see. They’d rather have racism, other hatreds, and outrages — real or imagined — discussed in a public forum, “than have them kind of festering in back yards and back rooms where they can become dangerous,” Winstead told me.
In March of 2001, Blake Caravati, a local builder who was Charlottesville’s part-time mayor and also one of five city council members, voted to approve construction of the freedom wall. So did two other members. One chose not to vote, and the fifth opposed the idea.
“It is a rather courageous thing for a government to get behind — particularly politicians — because this is going to be directly in front of our City Hall,” Mayor Caravati said at the time. “What it’s inviting is speech of all type.”
At public hearings, only two citizens stepped to the microphone to oppose the community chalkboard. They grumbled that plenty of others thought it was a bad idea but didn’t feel they could speak out against free expression in a generally liberal university town such as Charlottesville.
David Toscano, a lawyer and former Charlottesville mayor, was the lone council member to vote against the chalkboard proposal. He said he was not thrilled with the monument’s proposed style and scale. “It’s too big and too modern” for a city that has carefully preserved a colonial look, he said at the time. (more…)