Bush campaign, Clinton administration receive Jefferson ‘Muzzles’ as year’s top censors

Thursday, April 13, 2000

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, George W. Bush’s presidential campaign and the Clinton administration all share the dubious distinction of being recipients of this year’s Jefferson Muzzle awards, announced today by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

Each year since 1992, the Virginia-based center has celebrated the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday by recognizing the past year’s top censors. This year the center selected 12 recipients for the award, tying last year for the largest number of recipients ever.

“Censors often set out with the best of motives, and no intent to restrict speech,” said the center’s founder and director Robert O’Neil in a news release. “Somewhere along the way, they lose sight of one set of values — those embodied in the First Amendment — in an effort to serve others. When a person or group does grave damage to free expression, a Jefferson Muzzle is in order.”

Joshua Wheeler, an attorney and program director for the Thomas Jefferson Center, said there are several goals for the Muzzle awards.

“First we want to create awareness among the general public that the First Amendment is a right that has to be constantly defended,” Wheeler said. “Another major goal — one with which we have much lower expectations – is that the recipients will learn a lesson,” he said.

The twelve selected for Muzzles include:

  • The George W. Bush presidential campaign for seeking to have the Federal Election Commission regulate the content of a Web site that parodied its campaign.
  • The Clinton administration for its continued adherence to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military.
  • New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who received the only lifetime Muzzle award in 1999, for withdrawing funding for the Brooklyn Museum.
  • The Midland (Texas) Independent School District Board and Midland High School Principal Neil Richmond for suspending a student for an off-campus activity — taking a picture of Richmond’s car parked in front of a female teacher’s house.
  • School officials from Ponder, Texas, who jailed seventh-grader Christopher Beamon for writing a scary Halloween poem that featured violence.
  • CBS News for censoring an NBC billboard during its coverage of the New Year’s Eve festivities. CBS electronically made the billboard appear to be one of its own.
  • The Board of Trustees of Georgetown Charter Township, Mich., for prohibiting Internet access to offensive Web sites.
  • Rockingham County, Va., school officials for forcing a high school teacher to remove classroom door pamphlets that listed banned books.
  • The 1999 Virginia General Assembly for banning Confederate battle flag logos on specialty license plates.
  • The superintendent of Muscogee County, Ga., schools for ordering that 2,300 copies of a history textbook be altered to change a painting of George Washington.
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation for attempting to suppress and punish an Internet Web site by independent filmmaker Michael Zieper who showed clips of a fictional film suggesting that the government might foment a riot in New York City on New Year’s Eve.
  • Lorain County (Ohio) Prosecutor Gregory A. White for prosecuting a mother for child pornography for taking nude photographs of her daughter.

Wheeler says that he has seen first-hand how censorship can come from both the political right and the political left.

“Censorship does not have a common political base,” he said. “Threats to freedom of expression come from all across the political spectrum.”

Four of the twelve Muzzles were awarded for incidents of censorship in public middle or high schools. “These public education Muzzle recipients are only the tip of the iceberg,” Wheeler said.

“For each one selected, there are at least a half-dozen others that could have been selected,” he said. “This reflects the severity of the zero-tolerance policy that so many schools have felt forced to adopt in the wake of Columbine.”