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Center for Free Expression Celebrates 25 Years

What should be protected speech?  What is hate speech?In the wake of last week’s events at a contest to draw the prophet Muhammad in Texas, at which two attackers were killed by police, those questions are very much in the news these days.  WMRA’s Kara Lofton talked with the director of a center in Charlottesville, celebrating its 25th year of protecting freedom of speech.

For Josh Wheeler, freedom of speech means having the freedom to say what you want to say, even if your words are hurtful, mean or contrary to the beliefs of others. Wheeler is director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville. The Center is now in its 25th year.

WHEELER: The niche that the Thomas Jefferson Center has carved out for itself in the last 25 years is one of a non-partisan first amendment organization. And what I mean by that is our focus, our efforts, are all guided by a concern for free speech without any concern for a particular political point of view.

The term non-partisan rather than bi-partisan is an important distinction for Wheeler who said threats to free speech come from the left just as much as from the right. Both sides equally try to censor one another.

WHEELER: I think it’s important to know that the first amendment doesn’t protect ideas from being criticized. It exposes them to it. And that’s incredibly important because if you’ve got hate speech, if you’ve got speech that you really think is just terrible, if you censor it you force it underground. It’s not going to go away. But I f it’s allowed to come out in the open, if you expose it to the sunshine, then it cannot stand, because then people can fight it.

Wheeler said even if he stoutly disagrees with the viewpoints of a client, what’s important is that the client’s right to speak is upheld.

So I asked him what he thought about Pamela Geller and the “Draw Muhammad” contest, which resulted in two gunmen opening fire outside the Garland, Texas exhibit earlier this month.

WHEELER: Just because someone has the right to say something doesn’t mean they are right in saying it. And in this case I think this is the worst use of free speech because it is obviously done to deliberately offend part of our society.  And that I think serves no valuable purpose. On the other hand it is nonetheless protected speech. If we allowed people to veto expression because it offended them then essentially we would have no free speech at all.

To protect free speech, Wheeler says the Center works both “proactively and reactively.” They react to free speech infringements by, quote “intervening in the appeals of court cases involving the First Amendment” as a co-counsel or amicus curiae (friend of the court). The latter means they don’t represent the party, but support the cause. In these cases Wheeler and fellow lawyer Clay Hansen are assisted by a team of eight or so University of Virginia Law students who work on the cases for academic credit.

The center also issues an annual Jefferson Muzzle award, which is bestowed to a person or organization who has particularly affronted another’s right to free speech in the past year.

Their proactive work includes education and outreach to the greater community.  They also built a First Amendment monument on the downtown mall in Charlottesville. It’s a giant chalkboard in front of City Hall where people can write whatever is on their mind.  It is one of the Center’s endeavors of which Wheeler is most proud and the one he hopes to expand in the coming year.

WHEELER: So often people say: “Gee, I wish we had one of those in our town or our city.”  So what we’ve come up with is the idea of creating a mobile monument and we are going to make this out of a giant shipping container.

The shipping container would fit on the back of a tractor-trailer. All four sides will be made into a chalkboard and will travel to different places around the state as a kind of roaming free speech exhibit.

WHEELER: What’s different about this monument is because it’s a shipping container we will have a significant amount of space inside that we are going to transform into essentially an exhibit space and have exhibits on free speech issues, on art issues, and we’re also planning on having a small corner of it be a studio where we can record and will post to our website people’s thoughts and ideas about what free speech means to them.

For Wheeler, all these things, the Muzzle award, litigation and the monument are measures taken to promote awareness.

WHEELER: Because the greatest threat to free speech is when too many people take it for granted.

Kara Lofton is a photojournalist based in Harrisonburg, VA. She is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and has been published by EMU, Sojourners Magazine, and The Mennonite. Her reporting for WMRA is her radio debut.