Meet Your Nonprofit - Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression

Describe your nonprofit’s mission.
The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression is a unique organization, devoted solely to the defense of free expression in all its forms. While its charge is sharply focused, the Center’s mission is broad. It is as concerned with the musician as with the mass media, with the painter as with the publisher, and as much with the sculptor as the editor.

Since its founding in 1990, the Center has fulfilled its mission through a wide range of programs in education and the arts, and active participation in judicial and legislative matters involving free expression. Each year on or near April 13 (the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson) the Center focuses national attention on especially egregious or ridiculous affronts to free expression by awarding Jefferson Muzzles to responsible individuals or organizations. The Center also recognizes those who have shown extraordinary devotion to the principles of free expression through its William J. Brennan, Jr., Award.

Located in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Center enjoys close ties to the University of Virginia, but is an autonomous, not-for-profit entity.

What need in our community brought about the creation of your nonprofit?
In courtrooms, classrooms, and communities nationwide, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression works to ensure that our First Amendment rights of free speech and press are neither trampled upon nor forgotten.

Our mission proceeds from two core beliefs. First, that there is no such thing as a harmless violation of free expression, and second, that our expressive rights are at their most vulnerable when we take them for granted, tolerating the censorship of others while assuming our own speech will always be protected. Accordingly, our efforts are equally divided between advocacy and education. This approach—both proactive and reactive— bolsters the First Amendment from all sides, keeping would-be censors in check while cultivating a robust appreciation of First Amendment values among the public.

How has your nonprofit made a difference in our community?
We are unique in our ability to speak broadly to the public, thanks to the degree of credibility and trust we have built since the Center’s founding over 25 years ago. From day one, we have adhered to a strict policy of nonpartisanship in all that we do because we know that threats to free expression can—and do—come from all points along the political and ideological spectrums. Nonpartisanship is therefore our covenant with the public that the Center serves no masters; the First Amendment is our one and only guidepost. That same guidance informs our belief that truly free expression encompasses all viewpoints. To this end, we strive to create opportunities for those with differing viewpoints to come together and engage in productive conversation.

Our outreach and educational efforts are an extension of this commitment to bringing people together to explore and exercise their First Amendment rights. Here again, our work is designed with complementary goals in mind. Our annual Jefferson Muzzle awards, for example, not only shine a light on censors at all levels of government, but also serve as a powerful reminder that free expression demands vigilance. We build permanent monuments to free expression that are transformed daily from the symbolic to the sublime through the expression of others. And because, like our namesake, we believe that free expression’s first line of defense is a well-informed citizenry, we work with students of all ages to build a strong foundation of respect and appreciation for First Amendment principles among the leaders of tomorrow.

Many of these future leaders discover a passion for speech and press law by taking part in our legal advocacy program. Working closely with First Amendment practitioners and scholars nationwide, our attorneys file amicus briefs on behalf of speech and press litigants in state and federal courts across the country, including the United States Supreme Court. Our reputation for amicus advocacy is such that we are regularly approached by parties seeking our support and by other organizations hoping to sign on to our briefs. Our litigation efforts frequently double as educational opportunities. While independent in governance and finance, the Center enjoys a longstanding relationship with the University of Virginia School of Law. Each year, our attorneys train a select group of UVA law students in the nation’s preeminent First Amendment practice clinic. These students go on to embody the Center’s mission and values throughout their legal careers. Our distinguished roster of past students and interns includes United States Supreme Court clerks, law professors, and advocates at civil liberties organizations nationwide.

How can community members help you achieve your mission?
One of the primary local achievements of the Thomas Jefferson Center is the First Amendment Monument on Charlottesville’s downtown pedestrian mall. Approximately 10 years ago, the Center worked with the city and residents to design and construct the slate chalk wall, podium, and signage. Today, while still usable, portions of the wall and signage are in disrepair and require renovations. For just $10,000 we could repair all of it. We are looking for a sponsor for this work.

Tell us a story that has come out of your work.
In addition to being a rallying point for press events, marches, and the like, when tragedy strikes, the First Amendment Monument serves as a site for for vigils. In the aftermath of the June 12, 2016 massacre of 49 people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, hundreds of people gathered the next day at the monument. Using the free speech podium, multiple speakers addressed the mourners in an effort to comfort and show solidarity with those who lost loved ones in the attack. This sort of event happens almost weekly at the Monument.

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