Wall of shame or honor?: Locals test-drive the free speech wall


Who would have thought that one of Charlottesville's most provocative architectural projects would be a solitary wall?

Yet the bold and simple design that local architects Peter O'Shea and Rob Winstead came up with for the "free speech wall"– a 55-foot long, seven-foot high chalkboard smack in front of City Hall– has had people talking since it was first proposed nine years ago.

In fact, O'Shea didn't think their design would win because of the argument they knew it would trigger. "I was thinking we wouldn't win because of the potential worries about what people might write on the wall," says O'Shea. Ironically, he says, that's exactly why the design won.

"The Jefferson Center and the jury felt that it best embodied the intention of the First Amendment," says O'Shea. "And went further by encouraging people to actively exercise this right in a public setting."

Like many proponents of the wall, O'Shea believes the debate itself embodies the intention of the project. However, critics say it's more about the design being an ineffective and inappropriate way to honor our First Amendment.

Proponents like Josh Wheeler, associate director of the Jefferson Center, which sponsors the wall, see it as a unique way to encourage free expression. "It was a very courageous decision on the part of City Council," said Wheeler after City Council approved the project in 2001, "and an unprecedented statement by elected officials that the exercise of First Amendment rights are not only tolerated but invited."

Rhetoric like this attracted national media attention, as well as the support of a number of Charlottesville celebrities and philanthropists, including Sissy Spacek, Rita Mae Brown, and John Kluge (who eventually donated $125,000 ), to the project. In addition, says O'Shea, at a public hearing before the Council vote, supporters overwhelmingly out numbered critics.

However, wall critic Kevin Cox says that's because Wheeler and the Jefferson Center went around to schools at UVA and in the County to talk up the project before the hearing. "They basically packed the hearing with supporters, which kind of forced Council's arm to approve the project," says Cox.

That's a charge that Wheeler neither confirms or denies. As Cox points out, "Nobody wants to publicly criticize the monument because they don't want to be labeled as anti-free speech."

However, the now defunct Observer ran an editorial calling the proposed wall "untrue to the spirit of free expression" because it would allow people to say whatever they wanted without being held accountable. In effect, it was a coward's form of free speech. As a result, the editorial predicted, the wall would become an eyesore laced with the kind of profanity and inane scribblings found in bathroom stalls.

Local businessman Tyler Sewell also felt the project was ill-conceived. "In theory, the chalkboard for free speech is a great idea," he wrote on a local blog. "In practice, it will be an ugly eyesore covered with profanity and an ugly embarrassment for the City."

Cox, despite being a free-speech advocate, thinks both critics and supporters were too optimistic. "Unlike a keyboard and the Web, rough slate and chalky rocks just don't lend themselves to writing trash or truth," he wrote in response to a Hook cover story on the Wall in June 2005. "With time, the chalkboard will just sit there, blank and uninteresting," he said. "Eventually, we will be left with an odd little wall as a monument to bad design and good intentions."

Although the panels of Buckingham slate have yet to be mounted on the wall, Charlottesville citizens haven't been shy about using the space. On a recent visit to the wall, we found the bare cinderblocks and protective tarp covered with New Year's resolutions, humor, profanity, soft porn, political statements, math formulas, confessions of love, phone numbers to call for a good time, and several things that don't seem to mean anything at all. Is this what we can expect to see when the rest of the slate goes up?

"Just as we expect with the chalkboard, the comments people have written range from the serious to the silly, from the political to the personal," says Wheeler. "Although it was not our intent that people write on the tarp before the monument was completed, we don't mind that they do. And, in fact, it inspired us to reserve a section for people to write their hopes and resolutions for 2006 as part of the First Night celebration."

Wheeler points out that when completed, the monument will function very differently from the way it does now. "For example, whatever somebody writes on the tarp now remains there until the tarp is removed," says Wheeler. "On the completed chalkboard, the expression will change on a daily basis."

For some, like Cox, that's the problem. "The idea that erasing is a form of free speech is bizarre," he says. "Erasing or altering posts on the monument is defined by the Jefferson Center as a private expression, and so it's permitted. On the other hand, censorship by the government is prohibited by the First Amendment."

As a de facto public monument, Cox believes, "it sends a message that the government endorses and permits censorship."

Where Wheeler sees a rich tapestry of human expression, Cox sees inane, juvenile graffiti. "Look at what happened to the fabric covering the unfinished wall," Cox points out. "Much of what was written there was essentially meaningless gibberish. This is an inappropriate way to celebrate the First Amendment."

Obviously, we won't know for sure what people will do with the chalkboard until it's up and running. According to Wheeler, R.E. Lee & Son will start mounting the big slabs of slate in early February.

Charlottesville free speechers have already begun writing on the unfinished wall.