‘Muzzle’ awards spotlight school censorship

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Censorship incidents in public schools occupied a prominent place in 2004 among this year’s “Jefferson Muzzles” — a “dubious distinction” bestowed by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression upon individuals or groups who thwarted freedom of expression in the past year.

The Charlottesville, Va.-based anti-censorship group announces its awards each year to celebrate the April 13 birthday of President Thomas Jefferson. Those who earned 2005 Muzzles included:

  • The Federal Communications Commission for its crackdown on “indecent” broadcasts and heavier fines since the infamous Janet Jackson Super Bowl performance.

  • The Democratic and Republican national parties for remaining silent when the free-assembly rights of protesters were squelched outside the party conventions in Boston and New York.

  • The U.S. Marshals Service for confiscating an audio recording of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s speech at a high school in Hattiesburg, Miss.

  • The Virginia House of Delegates for passing bills related to mandatory filters on computers in public libraries and the wearing of sagging jeans by teens. One measure would have criminalized the wearing of such clothing.

  • Georgia State Rep. Ben Bridges for proposing a bill to restrict teaching about evolution in public school science classes. The bill provided that teachers could only teach “scientific fact,” not theories, although evolution and gravity are both theories.

    Five of the 15 Muzzles went to secondary school officials for censoring student expression:

  • Berkmar High School Principal Kendall Johnson in Georgia for censoring a school newspaper article about the new gay-and-lesbian student club on campus.

  • The administration at the High School of Legal Studies in Brooklyn, N.Y., for denying the valedictorian her diploma because they disagreed with her graduation speech, including her complaint about overcrowded classrooms and a lack of textbooks.

  • Administrators at Russell High School in Kentucky for prohibiting a student from wearing a prom dress styled as a Confederate battle flag; administrators at Poway High School in California for punishing a student for wearing a T-shirt that said “Homosexuality is shameful”; and the superintendent of Climax-Shelly School District in Minnesota for banning the display of the city of Climax’s T-shirt, which bore the message “Climax — more than a Feeling.”

    “Year in and year out the largest single identifiable category has been public school administrators,” said Robert O’Neil, the founder of the Thomas Jefferson Center and a leading free-speech expert.

    “Every year we see incidents with respect to clothing, editorials and graduation speeches,” he told the First Amendment Center Online. “This year was no different. We awarded three muzzles based on the censorship of student clothing, one based on the suppression of an editorial and one based on the retaliation [against] a student graduation speaker. The dominance of these three areas was shown again.”

    One explanation for the high number of censorship incidents at public schools, O’Neil said, is the “sheer number of opportunities for suppression of expression in public schools, which exceeds any other area of public life.”

    “There are so many opportunities for students to test or challenge school officials’ commitment to free expression,” he said. “Students and administrators coming to a collision is a natural confrontation between the experimental nature of students and the post-Columbine attitude of administrators.”

    O’Neil said that the “particular irony” of this conflict is that public school officials often engage in censorship in a place that affords the “best opportunity” to teach about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

    “It is a particular source of regret that not only do many of these incidents present a lost teaching opportunity, but they also present the teaching of a negative lesson,” O’Neil said.

    Another theme of this year’s Muzzles was the relatively high number of incidents involving the cultural conflict over gay rights. Three Muzzles were awarded this year over the suppression of that debate.

    The gay-rights debate “presented itself in different ways,” O’Neil said. “You had an individual student punished for expressing a homophobic viewpoint, a school newspaper that wished to convey a point-counterpoint article about a gay-and-lesbian student club and a legislator who was, at the very least, less than sensitive to the issue of sexual orientation.”

    Asked why there were more of these incidents, O’Neil replied: “There is a higher visibility and greater willingness of people on both sides of the debate to express themselves publicly on a politically volatile issue and an issue in which there is political support to be had.”

    This year’s Muzzles also embraced both major national political parties.

    “Censorship is bipartisan,” O’Neil said. “Here as in other areas, there is more than enough blame that goes on both sides. We see censorship from those with whom we might tend to agree with and with those whom we might tend to disagree.”

    For the second straight year, the Thomas Jefferson Center awarded a Muzzle to a private sports entity. Last year it was the Baseball Hall of Fame. This year it was NASCAR, the National Stock Car Racing Commission, for imposing penalties upon popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. for saying “shit” during a television interview immediately after winning a race at Talladega Superspeedway.

    “Major professional sports are an important sector of national life,” O’Neil said. “If they transgress with regard to speech or press, it seems important to discuss it. If NASCAR had only fined the driver, that might not have been as big a problem. But they also docked the driver 25 points. We felt that that was such a severe sanction for the use of a single commonly used word.”

    He noted that NASCAR, as a private organization, cannot actually “violate” the First Amendment. Such violations occur only if government entities infringe on free expression.

    “We realize that private organizations are free to adopt whatever policies they want,” O’Neil said. “But we have always been concerned with free expression beyond the core First Amendment safeguards and we have found it helpful to identify private actors who threaten the spirit of free expression.”

    Other Muzzles:

  • Awards to the U.S. State Department for denying entry to 61 Cuban scholars for vague national-security concerns, and to the Department of Homeland Security for revoking the work visa of Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, who had been hired by the University of Notre Dame.

  • Alabama State Rep. Gerald Allen for proposing legislation that would prohibit the use of state funds to purchase textbooks that “recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle.”

  • The Motion Picture Classification and Rating Administration for giving the movie “Team America” an NC 17 rating because of a sex scene between two wooden toys.
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