High school officials prominent on annual list of censors

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Public school officials once again were featured prominently this year when the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression handed out its annual “Jefferson Muzzle” awards.

For the 16th consecutive year, the Charlottesville, Va.-based Thomas Jefferson Center “censured the censors” in an effort to bring public focus to the most egregious affronts to freedom of expression. Unveiled every year near the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, the Jefferson Muzzles are dubious distinctions given to those persons, groups or entities that showed a flagrant disregard for fundamental First Amendment principles during the previous year.

Reflecting a pattern over recent years, a good number of the winners (4 out of 14) came from the ranks of secondary school officials. They included:

  • The Charles A. Beard Memorial School Board in Knightstown, Ind., for expelling four sophomores who created a video that featured evil stuffed animals dispatched to kill a teacher. The video, created entirely off-campus, was not a true threat, according to law enforcement officials. In December 2006, a federal judge determined the punishment was excessive and likely violated of the First Amendment. The school district later settled the case by paying nearly $70,000 in damages and attorney fees.

  • The Watson Chapel School District in Watson Chapel, Ark., for suspending 20 students for wearing black armbands to protest what they felt was an onerous dress code. In October, a federal judge ruled the students had the right to wear the armbands. The officials flagrantly violated the principles of the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous student speech decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), which ruled that students had the right to wear black armbands to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

  • The Miami-Dade County Public School Board for banning A Visit to Cuba from school libraries after a parent complained it did not document adequately the harshness of life in the Fidel Castro-led community country. A federal district judge ruled in August 2006 that the books should stay on the shelves.

  • Three high schools — Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, Ind., Princeton High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Wyoming Valley West High School in Kingston, Pa. — for censoring student newspapers. The censored articles included an anti-illegal immigration editorial, an opinion piece criticizing the high school football team and a student poem about being caught without a hall pass.

“Over the years we have had a disproportionate and consistent number of transgressors who are secondary school administrators, superintendents and school board members,” said the center’s founder and free-speech expert Robert M. O’Neil. “Some of these — most notably the black armband prohibition in Arkansas — indicate that some free-speech lessons are learned very slowly.”

Secondary school officials weren’t the only Muzzle recipients. Several previous winners made repeat appearances this year, including the Bush administration for changing and censoring scientific studies, the Federal Communications Commission for substantially broadening the agency’s power and scope to regulate indecent broadcasting, and the U.S. Department of Defense for investigating citizens for peaceful and legal, anti-war protesting.

Four of the Muzzles went to federal officials, three went to state officials and two went to local officials. “This shows the familiar pattern that censorship occurs at all levels of government,” O’Neil said.