Unmuzzled: Censors steer clear of O'Neil

Bob O'Neil can drop big names in 20th-century constitutional matters like nobody else– and all with a personal connection.

Supreme Court Justice William Brennan? O'Neil clerked for him on the Warren Court.

Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell? O'Neil got the two former litigants together under the auspices of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, which he heads.

"Falwell's father was a bootlegger," O'Neil says. "Both are from strikingly similar backgrounds."

David Halberstam and Chuck Colson? The author of The Best and the Brightest and the Watergate "Hatchet Man"-turned-preacher have this in common: Both were O'Neil's editors, Halberstam at the Harvard Crimson, Colson at his Cambridge high school paper.

"Both were very tough, very demanding," recalls O'Neil.

He even crossed paths with Senator Joe McCarthy and lawyer Roy Cohn while covering a trial for the Crimson. Today he says it wasn't his journalism experience so much as the subjects he covered that led him to become a watchdog of free speech.

A constitutional lawyer, O'Neil still teaches a class at the UVA Law School– just as he did when he was UVA's president from 1985 to 1990.

In 1990, after 20 years as a university administrator– including a stint as president of the University of Wisconsin– O'Neil says he faced the decision of recruiting someone to head the newly formed Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression– or taking the job himself.

"If you don't return to your discipline in your mid-50s, it becomes impossible to return," he says.

Protecting freedom of expression keeps O'Neil constantly on the road. The Center files friend of the court briefs, hosts conferences and First Amendment clinics, and awards the "Jefferson Muzzles" on TJ's birthday– April 13– to the most egregious violators of free speech and freedom of the press.

Other free speech plans include the controversial community chalkboard in First Amendment Park that's part of the multi-million dollar renovation and new transit center at the east end of the Downtown Mall.

As snappy sounding as the Muzzles are, what's with the unwieldy name of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression?

O'Neil says it was chosen by the founder, former Daily Progress owner Thomas E. Worrell Jr., and is not negotiable.

"We just call it the Center," he confides.

Age: 69

What brought you here? The presidency of (and a law faculty position at) the University of Virginia

What's worst about living here? Traffic on US 29– and the absence of alternative routes north and south

Favorite hangout? Boar's Head Sports Club

Most overrated virtue? The belief that Mr. Jefferson is everywhere, even in places he would not conceivably have visited in his own time

What would people be most surprised to learn about you? That the head of a center named for Thomas Jefferson realizes that Mr. Jefferson was not perfect but was, indeed, human

What accomplishment are you proudest of? Roughly equal terms (20 years each) as a senior university administrator and as a faculty member involved in key roles in such organizations as the American Association of University Professors– apparently the only person to have pursued both careers

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Being more directly responsive to such questions as this, and less discursive

What do people find most annoying about you? My tendency to tell them more than they wished, or even needed, to know

Whom do you admire? Among the living, Jimmy Carter

Favorite book: Generally, the novels of John Irving– a preference enhanced by having been brought into the world by his grandfather (to whom Cider House Rules was dedicated)

What subject causes you to rant? Censorship in almost any form

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? The Internet- its brighter and more promising side

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? The Internet- on its darker side (Spam and beyond)

What do you drive? A VW Passat, a Ford Taurus, and a 1928 Ford Model A Phaeton

What's in your car CD player right now? Ever see a 1928 Ford Model A with a CD player?

What's your next journey? Bermuda in May

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten into? Learning that a faculty member whose promotion and tenure I had recommended had been told by my (and his) superior that I had made a negative recommendation, leaving me unable either to affirm or deny

What do you regret? The sale several years ago to Georgia Pacific of a paper products company on the board of which I had served for many years

Favorite comfort food? Calamari

What's always in your refrigerator? Milk, juice, water, coffee

Must-see TV? PBS News Hour- the product of nine years on the WVPT Board and three years chairing that board

Favorite cartoon? Doonesbury

Describe a perfect day? Sharing with my wife the care of either of two pairs of grandchildren

Walter Mitty Fantasy? Becoming curator of the antique auto collection in Burbank that serves the movie industry

Who'd play you in the movie? Unfortunately, he's now preoccupied trying to govern California, but I'm patient.

Most embarrassing moment? Discovering upon starting to speak that I'd brought the completely wrong speech; improvisation comes quickly under such conditions.

Best advice you ever got? "You can never get into trouble speaking in the past tense."

Favorite bumper sticker: "The moral majority is neither."

Robert O'Neil