Loud and unclear: Charlottesville city councilor confronts Mall regular over clapping

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Bob Fenwick. File photo. Bob Fenwick. File photo.

You might not have met Michael Jones, but if you’re a regular on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, chances are you’ve heard him.

Jones is known for walking the Mall with his headphones on, clapping loudly and sometimes chanting about the glory of God. But an altercation with a Charlottesville elected official over his actions is raising questions about freedom of speech.

City Councilor Bob Fenwick said he’d been concerned about Jones’ clapping and chanting for a long time before he confronted him earlier this month.

“People told me they were scared of him, and said ‘I’m never coming back to the Mall,’” said Fenwick. Restaurants complained, saying they were losing customers from outdoor tables. So on August 8, Fenwick walked up to Jones while Jones was standing on the pedestal at the Mall’s free speech wall. 

The two men’s accounts differ as to what happened next. Fenwick said Jones became agitated, and told him that the last person who tried to take away his rights “was murdered.”

Fenwick said he backed off. “I said, ‘I wish you luck,’ and I gave him my card.”

Days later, said Fenwick, Jones followed him up the mall in what Fenwick felt was a menacing way. Fenwick made a complaint to a local magistrate, but said he was told that as there was no physical contact, direct threat, or swearing, there would be no charges.

“I was really frustrated,” Fenwick said.

Jones said he never threatened Fenwick, and never followed him. “I told him I am practicing my First Amendment right and he said if you don’t [stop] I am going to make you stop,” Jones said in a written statement provided to C-VILLE.

In an interview at a downtown coffee shop, Jones said he’s had a tough go of it in life, but has gotten things on track since moving into The Crossings, Charlottesville’s permanent housing complex for the formerly homeless, a year and a half ago. He grew up poor in Buckingham County, he said, and stole chickens to feed his parents. He spent time in jail for burglary, and he slept on the streets for several years. Now that he has has a place to stay, things are better, he said, and he’s running his own lawn care business. He takes time to praise God and read the Bible, he said, “because otherwise the Devil would have gotten me long ago.”

Jones has been arrested on numerous other occasions, and was found guilty of assault in 2010, according to court records. He’s currently facing a drug charge in Charlottesville General District Court. Twice—once in May 2013 and again in May of this year—he was charged with noise ordinance violations after police used a sound meter to record him at more than 75 decibels. He was found not guilty the first time, and a judge dismissed the second charge.

Fenwick pointed to Jones’ arrest record as an indication that his allegations of threats should be taken seriously, and said he still thinks something should be done to curb Jones’ clapping and shouting.

“We can’t hide from it, because it’s right in front of us, and it’s hurting people,” Fenwick said. “The pursuit of happiness doesn’t mean you’re frightened or cowering in your home or in your business.”

Jeff Fogel is a human rights lawyer who has represented Downtown Mall panhandlers in free speech disputes. Jones’ situation is a sticky one, he said.

“On the one hand, you don’t have a right to unlimited free speech,” Fogel said. “The question is when do you cross the line between something people don’t like and is annoying and something that really warrants a restriction on that right?”

There will always be situations where you can’t accommodate everybody’s interest, said Fogel, and in such cases, “there are no answers, just difficult questions.”