Bush, federal government lead pack of ’06 ‘Muzzle’ winners

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

President George W. Bush topped the list of individuals and groups earning
the dubious distinction of a “Jefferson Muzzle” award — a dishonor bestowed upon the leading censors of
2005 by the Charlottesville, Va.-based Thomas Jefferson
Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

For the 15th consecutive year, the center “censured the censors” in an
effort to bring public focus to the most egregious affronts to freedom of
expression in the preceding calendar year. The center unveils the Muzzles every
year near the anniversary of the birthday of Thomas Jefferson.

The president earned his Muzzle for secretly authorizing the National
Security Agency to engage in surveillance of U.S. residents without first seeking
permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court. “If individuals are
fearful that their communications will be intercepted by the government, such
fears are likely to chill their speech,” the center wrote. “Specifically, the
speech of political dissenters is likely to be inhibited by such eavesdropping.”

Other Muzzles went to:

  • The U.S. Department of Justice for subpoenaing Google in federal court
    to turn over thousands upon thousands of subscriber Web addresses and random
    search requests to help strengthen its case in support of the Child Online
    Protection Act, a law designed to protect children from online pornography.

  • The Supreme Court of Florida for prohibiting two Fort Lauderdale
    attorneys from advertising with the slogan and picture of a pit bull. The
    Florida high court contended that the ads demeaned the professional image of
    attorneys. “Regardless of how one feels about the tastefulness of such
    advertising, the claim that prospective clients could be misled to their
    detriment by the pit bull commercial seems outlandish,” the center wrote.

  • Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin for calling
    for greater government regulation of content on television, even cable and
    satellite television programming. “The statement of FCC Chairman Martin to the
    Senate Commerce Committee demonstrates a disregard of First Amendment principles
    by calling for government involvement where it is not needed,” the center

  • Every year, the list of censors crosses all political and
    ideological boundaries. To Robert O’Neil, founder of the Thomas Jefferson Center, “threats to free expression come from all over the political spectrum
    and are not the byproduct of a particular political outlook.” For example, the
    current president is the third straight president to have earned a Muzzle; his
    father, George H.W. Bush, received one in 1992 and Bill Clinton made the list in 2000.

    While Bush and the Justice Department earned Muzzles, censorship
    also comes from the left. For instance, the administration of William Paterson
    University in New Jersey received a Muzzle for censuring Jihad Daniel, a Muslim
    employee who expressed his belief in an e-mail that gay and lesbian
    relationships were a “perversion.”

    Similarly, hecklers who loudly jeered during a speech by conservative
    columnist Ann Coulter received a Muzzle for making it difficult for Coulter to
    speak and her listeners to hear. “While audience members have a right — indeed a
    First Amendment right — to express their disagreement with the comments of a
    speaker, it is contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment to do so in a
    manner that prevents fellow audience members from hearing that speaker’s ideas,”
    said the Thomas Jefferson Center.

    One persistent theme of the Muzzles has been the prevalence of censorship
    among public high schools. This trend continued as the center gave Muzzles to
    the school administrations of Oak Ridge High School in Tennessee, Wellington
    High School in Florida and Troy High School in California for censoring student
    newspaper articles.

    “The persistence and durability of school-related muzzles, (though) perhaps
    fewer in number this year … suggests that we are never very far from school
    censorship issues that can affect both students and teachers,” O’Neil said in an
    interview with the First Amendment Center Online.

    Another striking feature of this year’s Muzzles was the prevalence of awards
    to the federal government: Bush, the DOJ, the Department of Homeland Security
    and the chairman of the FCC all earned Muzzles. “The federal government was more
    dominant in the awards this year,” O’Neil said. “The primary reason was that the
    federal government in a number of different areas was acting in ways that
    threaten free expression and free inquiry.”

    O’Neil said the awards may be having a positive effect. “The propensity of
    people who are notified of their candidacy for Muzzles to respond has increased
    and certain extreme manifestations seem less likely to occur,” O’Neil said,
    referring to the fact that Muzzle candidates, when notified, now often reply to
    the center with letters justifying their acts. “This is possibly indicative of a
    more favorable climate for free speech.”