‘Muzzle’ awards feature unusually diverse group of winners

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

An unusually diverse group of winners headlined the 19th annual “Jefferson Muzzle” awards, unveiled today by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

Every year, the Virginia-based center has awarded the dubious distinctions around the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday (April 13) to those persons, groups or entities that showed a flagrant disregard for fundamental First Amendment principles during the previous year.

Reflecting a pattern in recent years, several of this year’s recipients were cited for incidents of censorship in public schools. In North Dakota, the West Fargo School Board removed a school adviser because he allowed too much negative content in student-written editorial columns. In California, Principal S.K. Johnson of Orange High School ordered the lockdown of 300 copies of a student magazine because it glorified tattoos. In Puerto Rico, meanwhile, the Department of Education ordered the removal of five books from library shelves because they supposedly contained vulgar language.

“Public school administrators and schools boards often tend to follow the path of least resistance,” explained Robert O’Neil, founding director of the Thomas Jefferson Center. “As schools have moved toward policies of zero tolerance for controversial student speech, more incidents of censorship arise.” He noted that the climate of censorship in public schools has increased in a post-Columbine environment.

Another Muzzle went to the administration of Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif., for confining student protesters to a “free-speech patio.” Many universities have come under fire from First Amendment advocates for relegating demonstrators to so-called free-speech zones, but Southwestern College officials were even bolder with their “patio.”

“It is a novel design, if not a novel concept,” said O’Neil. “Free-speech zones are the more familiar and widespread concept. This patio concept limits and marginalizes student speech and clearly merits a Muzzle award.”

Meanwhile, prison administrators in Virginia earned a Muzzle for denying a routine request by an inmate for a CD of a Christian sermon. Kyle Mabe had requested a copy of the sermon “Life Without a Cross.” The Virginia Department of Corrections denied the request, though it allowed other inmates to obtain music CDs.

“This was a baffling and contradictory policy on the part of the corrections department,” O’Neil said, adding that the department also merited its award because it ended a successful program called “Books Behind Bars.”

The Oklahoma Tax Commission garnered a Muzzle for rejecting a request for an “IM GAY” vanity plate from the now-deceased Keith Kimmel. Officials denied Kimmel’s request even though they allowed tags with heterosexual messages such as “STR8FAN” and “STR8SEXI.”

“We were quite startled at the lack of clarity in the state commission’s policy and then the stark difference in treatment” on sexual orientation, explained O’Neil.

Notably absent from this year’s list of Muzzles was the administration of President Barack Obama. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush or high-ranking officials in their administrations earned Muzzles in the past.

“There was only one Muzzle awarded to a federal government official (this year) and that was a member of the House of Representatives,” said O’Neil. “The rest are all state and local officials which is unusual.” He added that it is “too early to tell” whether the Obama administration ultimately will do a better job of protecting speech than past administrations.

O’Neil said this year’s list of Muzzles shows that censorship is alive and well. “It certainly doesn’t go away,” he said. “Some of the crudest forms of censorship we don’t see as much, but it is a continually evolving process and there are always plenty of examples.”