Muzzled: Free speech wall creator shuts down

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression owns the Free Speech Wall on the Downtown Mall. Discussions with the city are going on to determine the wall’s fate.
staff photo The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression owns the Free Speech Wall on the Downtown Mall. Discussions with the city are going on to determine the wall’s fate. staff photo

During its heyday, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression was known for calling out censorship with its Muzzle awards and for launching the Downtown Mall’s Free Speech Wall in 2006, where luminaries like John Grisham and Dahlia Lithwick turned out to chalk the first messages on the monument.

Over the past couple of years, the center seemed to have disappeared from the free speech landscape, and on July 1, UVA law school quietly buried news of the center’s death in a release for the relaunch of a First Amendment Clinic, funded in part from assets from the TJ Center.

Former Daily Progress owner Tom Worrell founded the center in 1989 with a reported $3.5 million gift and bestowed its unwieldy moniker. Worrell, who was on UVA’s Board of Visitors, offered the job of leading the new free speech institute to outgoing UVA president and constitutional law expert Bob O’Neil—who later said changing the name was nonnegotiable.

During O’Neil’s 21-year leadership, the center was involved in high-profile free speech cases. After televangelist Jerry Falwell sued Hustler publisher Larry Flynt—and lost—over a parody that contended Falwell had sex with his mother, O’Neil said he got the two men together and they became friends. The center also prepped Margie Phelps, a member of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, which protested the funerals of soldiers with signs bearing messages like “God hates fags,” before her appearance in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Muzzles came out every April 13, on Jefferson’s birthday, and highlighted a free speech hall of shame. Locals occasionally made the list, either as victims of censorship, like Aaron Tobey, who was arrested by TSA in Richmond for displaying the Fourth Amendment on his chest as he went through airport security, or perpetrators, like Albemarle High for seizing and destroying all copies of the school’s student newspaper in 2010. (Physical education teachers didn’t like an op-ed that suggested student athletes be able to opt out of P.E.)

Board chair Bruce Sanford says the center had been winding down for the past year and a half. When Worrell founded it in 1989, “its chief mission was First Amendment advocacy in court,” says Sanford, although finding those cases and defending them was more difficult than anticipated.

Robert O’Neil, who died last fall, led the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression for 21 years. photo Michael Bailey

O’Neil taught a First Amendment clinic at UVA, as did Wheeler. “The First Amendment clinics are doing a lot of good work,” and both Columbia and Yale have them, says Sanford. “We’re very pleased to refocus our assets”—over $1 million—to fund the UVA clinic.

Attorneys from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press will teach a new generation of potential First Amendment lawyers, says Sanford. “It’s perfect for the original mission.”

As for why the center seemed to fizzle out, Sanford notes that the Muzzle recipients the past two years weren’t as compelling as in the past. And when O’Neil retired, “We didn’t have a leading constitutional scholar,” says Sanford. O’Neil died last fall at age 83.

Attorney Josh Wheeler succeeded O’Neil in 2011 and has been in private practice for the past two years. He did not respond to calls from C-VILLE.

The center’s shutdown leaves unresolved the fate of the Free Speech Wall, which has become the go-to site for protesters over its 13 years as a mall landmark.

When the city agreed to install the TJ Center-owned wall, it also agreed to not censor its content—although that did happen when a sexually explicit image was chalked on the wall in 2011. However, passersby are free to erase as they please, and the wall is cleaned twice a week to give citizens a blank slate.

“The cost of the upkeep is not great,” says Sanford, and the center is having discussions with the city about continuing the maintenance.

Longtime wall critic Kevin Cox says it’s an ineffectual monument to free speech, and it does not accomplish much as an educational tool. “It doesn’t really teach people what the First Amendment is” and how it applies to government, he says. Its location in front of City Hall creates the impression the government owns it.

He says the wall was a prescient “kind of a monument to Twitter” because it only accommodates short messages. Any lessons about free speech are “shallow,” he says. “It’s fun to write, ‘fuck City Council,’ but that’s about as far as it goes.”

Of the center’s closing, Cox says, “It seemed to be pretty superfluous. All they did was give their Muzzles.”

In fact, the TJ Center also filed a lot of briefs in First Amendment cases, according to Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead. He calls O’Neil and Wheeler a “dynamic duo,” and says they would defend anyone’s free speech rights. “There’s never enough people doing First Amendment issues,” he says. “I hate to see them go.”

C-VILLE was unable to reach Worrell for his response to the shuttering of the free speech org he founded 30 years ago. He was active in the beginning, says Sanford, but moved to Florida and shifted his focus to other projects. Says Sanford, “He didn’t really stay engaged.”

Update: The original headline was “Muzzled: Free speech center shuts down.”

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