Palimpsest patrol

Dear Ace: Who cleans the Free Speech Wall, and how often? I’m trying to determine when it would be likeliest that I would find a wide, empty swath of slate on which to hide an encoded message in plain sight.—Chalkboard-Collaborator-in-Charlottesville

The 54′ strip of Buckingham slate that stands at the threshold of the Charlottesville Pavilion goes by many names: the Free Speech Wall, First Amendment Monument, Community Chalkboard and so on. Ace, with equal parts cynicism, reverence and wobbly affection, has taken to calling it Graffiti Park. He’s thankful, of course, to live in a society in which open channels of free expression are protected by constitutional mandate. Then again, there’s that lingering question: What is the power of a sheltered word?

Personally, Ace sees just as much potential in, say, the writing on the wall under the Belmont Bridge by the Beck-Cohen building. Or in the marker mural inside Arch’s Frozen Yogurt on the Corner. After all, who stands to benefit more from a deftly wielded word: an established denizen of our artsy, permissive Downtown Mall? Or an impressionable first-year pledge in the dessert line?

Yet there is no doubt, rhetorical considerations aside, that since its completion in April 2006, the First Amendment Monument has served at once as a vibrant community forum, a treasured symbol of our shared civic values, and a canvas for some outstanding amateur artwork. The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, the local not-for-profit organization that commissioned the monument, is also responsible for cleaning it roughly twice a week. According to the Center’s website, such cleaning does not violate the First Amendment because it is “not government action.”

Likewise, says the Center, private citizens are also free to clean all or part of the slate at any time. So if you see a word on the wall that bothers you? Erase it, and write something else, or nothing, in its place! Maybe a lovingly crafted chalk portrait strikes you as beautiful? Deface it. You have that right.

But if the implications of your total freedom give you vertigo, worry not: The Thomas Jefferson Center also maintains a “virtual” Free Speech Wall, which abides by the same rules as the real one, at

You can ask Ace yourself. Intrepid investigative reporter Ace Atkins has been chasing readers’ leads for 21 years. If you have a question for Ace, e-mail it to

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