Cox lays down his toilet brush

After making Constitutional history by being the first person to defend the First Amendment with a toilet brush, Charlottesville resident Kevin Cox is calling it quits.

"I'm not touching it again," says Cox of the Downtown Mall's Free Speech wall. "I'm just going to walk around it and not look at it."

Cox has been a long-time critic of the wall, likening it to a public bathroom stall, and calling it an embarrassing eye-sore right in front of City Hall. While supporters of the wall say that thoughtful comments greatly outnumber offensive ones, Cox argues that comments like "Kill the ni**ers," "I f***ed your momma," and "Kill the cops"– which he has documented– have a more disturbing impact.

"Supporters of the wall seem to think that their acceptance of all the crap on here reflects a true embodiment of the principles of free speech," Cox told the Hook. "But what I feel most is sadness. I'm sad that the noble ideal of free expression in American life has been debased by a monument that serves as a platform for profanity, hate speech, vulgarity, and pornography."

Finally fed up with such comments, and in particular with the way the inscriptions of the First Amendment and a quote by late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall were being obscured, Cox began a crusade in early April, on his walk to work every morning, to clean those sections of the wall with a toilet brush and a bottle of water .

As he told the Hook, "You can't get an education if you can't read the text... I love the idea of an interactive monument that teaches free speech, but this just isn't doing it."

Indeed, even Josh Wheeler, associate director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, which built and oversees the wall, conceded that because the words of the First Amendment were obscured, he would present Cox's complaint to the citizens committee in charge of the wall at their next meeting.

On Monday, Wheeler finally met with the citizens committee and reports that the group was unanimous in "not wishing to prevent people from writing over the inscriptions." While he noted that two members expressed regret that the inscriptions are so often obscured, he says even they opposed any physical change to the wall, mostly for aesthetic reasons. Wheeler adds that a majority of committee members shared John Whitehead's view that to prevent people from writing over the inscriptions was contrary to the philosophical principles behind the First Amendment.

That appears to have been the final straw for Cox.

"I stopped because I think my vocal opposition may be counterproductive," says Cox. "I think it's obvious that the engravings should be protected, and I wonder if the committee's decision just reflects a certain stubborn refusal to publicly acknowledge an error."

Cox believes that pointing out public foible, something he's never shied from, often reinforces a commitment to stick with the program. "I want the engravings protected, and I think if I am silent that has a better chance of happening," he says.

Cox, who suggested protecting the inscriptions in some way so they could not be written over, says he has been harassed and vilified by people for wanting to keep the inscriptions visible. He says it's not a monument and not a worthwhile forum.

"The reality," says Cox, "is that the chalkboard is a silly graffiti board."

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6 comments

"likening it to a public bathroom stall, and calling it an embarrassing eye-sore right in front of City Hall."

That's about right.

That wall is a representation of the state of our culture. If Mr. Cox doesn't like it, he should become a mentor. He should be upset, but he is handling things in a way that cannot be productive, as he now realizes.

I'm so glad C-Ville promotes the writing of words such as c*nt, wh*re, d*ck, c*ck, f*ck, k*ll c*ps, k*ll wom*n, love j*sus, etc. The wall really helps education of the community. If you can't learn the words what will you do when you graduate?

This comment of course will be deleted, since there is no freedom here.

The monument is a joke - not really any better than the virtual chalkboard has proven to be. At first, the virtual board carried lively discussions, but once the discussions started to get hijacked by erasers and people who wanted to be profane apparently just for the sake of being profane, civil discourse went away, replaced by truly inane babble. The real chalkboard is headed the same way, and I find it impossible to defend the notion of walking out of City Hall to see the type of language Mr. Cox referred to. It's not controversial, nor is it a monument. It is, IMHO, nothing less than a disgrace and an insult.

Susan,
I think that wall is more than a representation of our culture, it's also an influence. To some extent it is a stamp of approval on the type of communication that people put on it. One day I was cleaning it and two tourists stopped and ask me what I was doing. The F word was prominently written across the board. It wasn't on the engravings so I left it there. As I chatted with the two visitors a group of young teenagers marched by making a big racket as they tried to get some attention. I watched them and saw one boy look at the F word. He laughed and then began to loudly cluck the word like a chicken or maybe he was braying it like a jackass, anyway it was a sad and gross scene and it didn't have to happen.

You say I should become a mentor. A mentor? To whom or what? If you could be little more specific maybe I'll take your advice. I am a mentor for my son.

Cordially,
Kevin Cox

While I'm disturbed by the constant assault on the first amendment by the PC police in academia on the left and the religious zealots on the right, I would agree with Mr. Cox that this chalkboard is not an appropriate way to promote a healthy dialogue on the topic. And it certainly doesn't reflect well on the city. Perhaps the wall would be better used as a forum for local artists or schoolchildren to display their work or something more pleasing to the eye.