Uncensored: Chalkboard survives east end plans

Three years ago, the Community Chalkboard was quite the local controversy when City Council approved the free speech monument where citizens, if they please, will be able to write the f-word or n-word– or even the j-word– right in front of City Hall.

Since then, the whole idea has pretty much dropped out of sight.

Was it a victim of the new transit center and the Coran Capshaw-backed amphitheater, too explosive to fit in the grand design that will complete the east end of the Downtown Mall and be the first thing some visitors to Charlottesville see?

No way. The Community Chalkboard: A Monument to Free Expression, is still a go, and designers have carved out space for it, according to Bill Letteri, who's in charge of the east end project for the city.

Chalkboard construction was stalled when the city decided to move the transit center from West Main to the east end of the Mall on Water Street. "Our project had to go on hold," says Josh Wheeler at the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, whose baby the chalkboard is. "In the last six months, it's taken off again."

Architect Robert Winstead and landscape architect Pete O'Shea won a competition for the monument's design in 1998. "You could do a historical piece on all the places it's supposed to have been– four or five different sites," says Winstead.

The latest and presumably last location is in front of City Hall. "I think it's an appropriate location for the monument," says Winstead. "It's a transitional, mediating element on the civic plaza between City Hall and the Downtown Mall, where the public interacts with government."

Winstead describes a three-part monument: First, the inscription panel with the First Amendment and list of donors; the community blackboard section made of Buckingham slate ("rough-textured, what blackboards were made of 100 years ago"), and a podium or lectern section. The entire piece will fit into a 60' by 30' paved rectangle on the Mall.

The Thomas Jefferson Center hasn't announced a date for groundbreaking. "We are in the quiet part of our campaign to raise funds," says Wheeler, "and then we'll go to a public campaign."

The center is trying to raise $250,000 to construct the monument, plus funds to maintain it.

As fitting a permanent tribute to free expression in Thomas Jefferson's hometown may seem, not everyone is happy to hear the chalkboard is still on.

"I thought it was a bad idea then," says pedestrian activist Kevin Cox. "I hoped the outrageous cost would kill it."

He objects to the fact that people are welcome to erase others' comments, which he calls a "loophole" to assuage City Council fears that the board will be littered with profanity.

He also thinks it won't be clear to the public that the monument is privately owned, and worries the erasures could be seen as government censorship.

The board will be wiped clean– maybe once a week– says Wheeler. That will be the only official erasing. "Anybody acting in their private capacity can write on the monument, and anybody acting in their private capacity can erase," he says.

"Free speech is the willingness to tolerate speech that's offensive and unfavorable," counters Cox. "I don't see that coming out of that monument."

Wheeler isn't worried that the monument to free expression will, in fact, stifle free speech: "The whole purpose is to show the evolving challenges to free speech."

And he promises some "significant" chalkboard news in the next month or so.

The free speech chalkboard has not been derailed in the east end of the Downtown Mall makeover.