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The Thomas Jefferson Center in Charlottesville, Virginia

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression was founded in 1990 to defend free expression in all its forms. The Center is located in Charlottesville, Virginia, and is associated with the University of Virginia but functions as an autonomous non-profit entity. The Center conducts programs in education and the arts and is active in judicial and legislative issues concerning free expression in the media, arts, and scholarship. Why is this important?

In a society where the law mandates that only one viewpoint be expressed, for example, in totalitarian nations, the only viewpoint permitted is that of the ruling class. Citizens are not free to “agree to disagree.” The governing class that controls the media, education, and arts, typically enjoys a higher standard of living when compared those it governs. Dissenting opinions are put down with brutal expediency and citizens then must decide if expressing an opposing viewpoint is worth risking their livelihoods, the safety of their family, and their very lives. Oppressive regimes may place dissenters in “education camps” (or prisons) where they are “retrained.” Prisoners often endure (and sometimes succumb to) brutal conditions. Freedom of expression is not only discouraged; it can be life-threatening. These conditions can result in revolt, destabilization (whether organic or engineered), and war.

The leadership of the Center comprises individuals whose opinions on a wide range of matters are not necessarily aligned. This is deliberate. They are committed to protecting the right of others to express opinions that differ from their own. The nonpartisan, unbiased approach extends to all matters addressed by the Center.

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13 and each year at the time the Center makes the dubious Jefferson Muzzle awards to focus attention on organizations and individuals that have attempted to block free expression. To balance the negative awards with positive recognition the Center also recognizes people and organizations that have demonstrated respect for free expression with its William J. Brennan, Jr. Award. Brennan was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1956-1990. He was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and led the court’s liberal wing.

The Center commissioned an interactive monument that celebrates the First Amendment. Architects Peter O’Shea and Robert Winstead built a two-sided slate wall approximately 54 feet long that sits in front of the Charlottesville, VA City Hall. People are free to pick up chalk and write on a chalkboard area their comments on politics, society, art, or other. Others can react to their comments or ideas. The purpose is to call attention to expression free of government censorship.