CBS, Defense Department lead list of top censors

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The Department of Defense, a federal judge and CBS are among the 13 winners of the infamous “Jefferson Muzzle” awards, a dubious annual distinction handed out by a Virginia-based anti-censorship group.

Robert O’Neil, founder of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said he and Josh Wheeler, the center’s associate director, started with a list of about 100 incidents for the 13th annual awards. O’Neil said it is often difficult to select the most egregious acts of censorship.

Those deemed most deserving of censure for their censoring are:

  • The Department of Defense for imposing a gag order prohibiting public comments by the civilian attorneys who defend alleged terrorists or “enemy combatants” before military tribunals.
  • U.S. District Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum for excluding the press and public from jury selection during the high-profile trial of Martha Stewart.
  • CBS for self-censoring the scheduled mini-series of Ronald and Nancy Reagan and for refusing to air an ad critical of the Bush administration during the Super Bowl.
  • The Secret Service for a pattern and practice of silencing dissent when the president or vice president speaks at public events.
  • The Albemarle County (Va.) School Board for punishing a sixth-grader for wearing a shirt bearing the words “NRA Shooting Camp.”
  • The Baseball Hall of Fame for canceling a celebration of the 15th anniversary of the release of the hit baseball movie “Bull Durham” because of public opposition to the views of the movie’s stars Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.
  • The University of New Orleans for prohibiting a woman unaffiliated with the university from handing out a religious leaflet on campus because the administration feared the tract might offend people.
  • Dearborn (Mich.) High School for punishing a student for wearing a T-shirt with a picture of President Bush bearing the words “International Terrorist.”
  • The South Carolina House of Representatives for passing a resolution calling on the country music group the Dixie Chicks to apologize and perform a free concert for troops in the state after their lead singer’s public criticism of President Bush.
  • The Parks and Recreation Division of Broward County (Fla.) for refusing to allow a church to enter a display in a county show because of its religious content.
  • Jeff Webster of Soldotna, Alaska, and an unnamed arsonist in Harrisonburg, Va., for their acts against anti-war protesters. Webster dumped a bucket of cold water on anti-war protesters, while a 14-year-old in Harrisonburg set fire to an anti-war sign on a home while the family was sleeping inside. The house sustained $60,000 in damage.
  • The Arizona State License Commission for denying the application for a specialty license plate by an anti-abortion group
  • The Pilot Point (Texas) Police Department for threatening to prosecute an art gallery owner unless he covered the breasts of the biblical character Eve on a mural on the outside of the building.

“These incidents of censorship are inevitable,” O’Neil said. “The only surprise is the forms that many of these acts of censorship take.”

Many of the censors tried to silence the voices of those opposed to the war in Iraq or the policies of the Bush administration. O’Neil identified as “most visible” the actions of the Department of Defense in prohibiting attorneys from commenting on the cases of alleged terrorists or “enemy combatants.”

This year’s “award winners” include two public high school administrations for punishing students for “inappropriate” clothing. In each case, a federal court rejected the acts of school censorship as infringing on the student’s free-speech rights under the seminal 1969 student free-speech case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. In Tinker, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public school administrators had violated the First Amendment by suspending students for wearing black armbands as a form of passive political protest of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

“Every year there are at least one or two or three acts of censorship in public schools that are included,” O’Neil said. “Schools historically and invariably are contentious places.”

Several examples in this year’s list include the stifling of religious speech by government entities. “I am a strong separationist, but I find it very troubling a governmental policy which stifles or inhibits the private expression of religious views,” O’Neil said.

“Censorship occurs in many different and varied settings,” O’Neil said. “Especially in times such as these, the suppression of controversial views is a constant in our society.” He added that the range of censors “reveals that threats to censorship to free expression come from all over the political spectrum and are not the byproduct of a particular political outlook.”

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