Administrators again dominate list of ‘Muzzle’ award winners

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

School administrators once again dominated the list of winners of the annual “Jefferson Muzzle” awards, unveiled today by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

This is the 18th year the Virginia-based center has awarded the dubious distinctions, given annually around the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday to those persons, groups or entities that showed a flagrant disregard for fundamental First Amendment principles during the previous year.

More than half of this year’s Muzzles were awarded to administrators at community colleges or K-12 schools. Interestingly, all four of the community college incidents involved the censorship of conservative student groups. The schools were:

  • Lone Star College in Texas, which confiscated pro-gun fliers of a conservative student group.

  • Tarrant County College in Texas, which prohibited students from wearing empty gun holsters as part of a protest against regulations against students carrying concealed weapons.

  • Cypress College in California, which called police to arrest members of a pro-life student group.

  • Yuba Community College in California, which threatened a student for passing out tracts of his Christian messages in violation of very restrictive speech regulations.

“There is an unusually high proportion of cases that come from one side of the spectrum this year,” said Robert M. O’Neil, founder and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center, in an interview with the First Amendment Center Online. “It also may indicate that conservative student groups are more vocal in some way perhaps than other groups and that they are more likely to encounter problems of this kind.

“In the past we’ve been accused of being a left-wing group,” O’Neil added. “Now, we may be accused of being a right-wing organization. But that is not the case. We simply take the censorship incidents as they come.”

The process starts with a list of approximately 100 of the worst censorship incidents in the past year. The center — primarily O’Neil and colleague Joshua Wheeler — narrows the list down to approximately 30 incidents before sending the list to the center’s board. The board then votes and selects about 12-15 entries.

This year, once again, there were several Muzzle awards given to K-12 administrators:

  • The Perry Township (Ind.) School Board, which suspended a teacher for assigning The Freedom Writers Diary to her 11th grade English class.

  • The administration of the Academy for Arts, Sciences & Technology in South Carolina, which prevented distribution of an editorial advocating same-sex marriage.

  • Officials at Millard South High School in Nebraska, who suspended 23 students for wearing T-shirts honoring a slain classmate.

  • The administration of Aurora Frontier K-8 in Colorado, which suspended a student for wearing a T-shirt that read “Obama — A Terrorist’s Best Friend.”

When asked why so many Muzzles are awarded year after year to secondary school administrators, O’Neil responded: “I think it is partly because there are so many schools and so many students. They are at a time in life when they, particularly high school students, are testing the system.” He added that there is also an “understandable anxiety” on the part of school administrators in a post-Columbine environment to preserve order and “protect school communities from serious threats.”

Schools were not the only places of censorship. Muzzles were also awarded to both the Democratic and Republican national parties for “their deafening silence over the severe restrictions on” protesters at their respective national conventions in Denver, Colo., and St. Paul, Minn. Both parties instituted free-speech zones that resembled prison facilities with concrete barriers, chain-link fences and security check points.

O’Neil said he was “shocked” at the high number of arrests and low number of convictions arising from protests outside last year’s party conventions.

“This is the third time that we cited both national political parties for the way in which they handled speech at national conventions,” O’Neil said, pointing out that both political parties received Muzzles for their conduct at the 1992 and 2004 conventions as well. “There is enough blame to go around and it is not the exclusive province of one party.”

Others receiving Muzzles this year were:

  • The Command Authority of Camp Lejeune Marine Base in North Carolina for requiring a civilian employee to remove from his car several decals that linked Islam and terrorism.

  • Berrien County, Mich., Judge Dennis Wiley for sending a minister to prison for writing a newspaper article that warned that a judge could be tortured by God.

  • Virginia Circuit Court Judge Westbrook J. Parker for ordering the organizers of a failed petition to recall four county supervisors to pay $80,000 in attorneys fees for the supervisors.