Back when the city established the free speech monument, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression—which commissioned and funded the slate wall in front of city hall—made quite clear to the city that they must never, ever erase anything from it, because doing so would be an unconstitutional violation of individual’s right to free expression. Unfortunately, new city manager Maurice Jones apparently quite literally didn’t get the memo, because he recently ordered city staff to erase a drawing from the wall, Dave McNair writes for The Hook.
Local poet, musician, and all around great guy Browning Porter provided the following astute comment on The Hook’s website:
The free speech wall is a beautiful, ingenious monument to one of the cornerstones of democracy. When the weather is nice I take my two small children down there regularly to write and draw on it. They get a chance to be creative and learn something about civics at the same time. We bring our own chalk and rags and spray bottles full of water and we “go to town” literally and figuratively.
I can’t remember ever having seen anything on the wall that I needed to shield them from, and — given the limitations of the medium — it’s hard to imagine that I would. Stick figures in obscene postures? Dirty words? In my experience, they are far more likely to see these in bathroom stalls than on the free speech monument, and worst case, I get an opportunity to be there to give them some context or guidance. If, as a private citizen, you object to something you see there, you can express your objection yourself with one swipe with a chunk of chalk, conveniently provided.
This particular instance of censorship is hilarious. How can anyone even tell what that thing is? You have to have a dirty mind to recognize it as anything dirty. I asked my son what he thought it was, and he said “a rainbow apple.” So there you go. I think it looks a bit like a cross section of a bell pepper myself.
I am sure that there are more objectionable images and phrases from time to time, but that is the price we pay for free expression. Until you understand this, you understand nothing.
The city has waded into a legal morass with this unfortunate move. Either they need to immediately establish a policy making clear that under no circumstances are city staff to erase anything from the chalkboard, or they need to tear down the chalkboard and admit that free expression is more than Mr. Jefferson’s town can handle.