Ashcroft, public schools singled out for stifling free speech

Monday, April 14, 2003

RICHMOND, Va. — U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, a Tennessee art agency that banned nude figures, an Arkansas school board that restricted library access to “Harry Potter” novels and the U.S. Congress have all been named some of the country’s top stiflers of free speech.

The winners of the 12th annual “Jefferson Muzzles” also include the North Carolina House of Representatives for trying to cut funding to a university program that assigned reading on Islam; Berkeley, Calif., Mayor Tom Bates for stealing 1,000 copies of a university paper that endorsed his opponent; and an Indiana high school that temporarily yanked a student’s diploma after her graduation speech.

“The kind of problems we see and the severity of the transgressions, they seem to remain constant over time,” said Robert M. O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville and a law professor at the University of Virginia.

“It was another bad year for free speech,” he said. “The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the preparation for the war in Iraq have created new pressures on free expression and may have made it harder to arouse public concern about those pressures.”

The center hands out the dubious distinctions each year in honor of Jefferson’s birthday on April 13. Recipients receive a T-shirt sporting a likeness of the third president with a muzzle on his face.

Several of this year’s muzzles went to public school systems. In addition to the Cedarville, Ark., school board, Michigan principal Richard Machesky received one for what the center called his censorship of a story in the Utica High School newspaper about a lawsuit against the school district’s bus depot.

The administration of Whiting High School, in Whiting, Ind., won a muzzle for withholding the diploma of last year’s senior class salutatorian after she gave teachers awards in 13 joke categories, such as “Trapped in the ’80s,” during her graduation speech.

Instead of her diploma, Caitlin Mills-Groninger received a note from the administration requesting a meeting. She refused, the story became public and she received her diploma in the mail about two weeks later.

Mills-Groninger, 19, now takes classes at a local college and is studying to be a massage therapist. She said the school’s reaction to her joke awards stunned her.

“Of all the things I expected to happen, I didn’t think they’d be so stupid as to do this,” she said.

Anthony Borgo, the 26-year-old president of the Whiting school board, said Mills-Groninger deviated from her pre-approved speech. He said the school’s place on the Muzzles list is unfair.

“I think that as a school, we did what we had to do,” Borgo said.

This year’s muzzle awards also targeted Lucy Spelman, director of the National Zoo in Washington D.C., for withholding records on the death of a 17-year-old giraffe. In refusing to release the information to a reporter, Spelman cited the dead giraffe’s privacy and the sanctity of the veterinarian-animal relationship, O’Neil said.

Two of the awards are headed to Tennessee. One goes to the state arts commission for its blanket ban on art depicting nude figures in a Nashville gallery. The other is for McMinnville City Administrator Herb Llewellyn, who barred public employees from writing letters to the editor or calling in to radio stations without his approval.

But the center came down hardest on Ashcroft and the 107th Congress for their responses to the Sept. 11, terrorist attacks, including the passage of the USA Patriot Act. The law gives federal investigators the authority to secretly examine book or use records, computer habits and hardware in libraries and bookstores.

Ashcroft, the center said, also has curtailed freedom by prohibiting public access to immigration deportation proceedings, tightening the Justice Department’s response to information requests, and detaining two American citizens accused of terrorism without giving them access to a lawyer.

The center slammed him for spending $8,000 in taxpayer money to hang drapes over two semi-nude statues in his office building, as well.

“The attorney general has shown a disturbing lack of concern about the impact of national security measures on individual rights in general,” O’Neil said.