Obama administration, BP win ‘Muzzle’ awards

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Oil giant BP and the Obama administration were among the winners of the 20th Annual Jefferson Muzzle awards, a dubious distinction bestowed today by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression to spotlight the worst censors of the previous year.

BP and the federal government appeared on the list for their roles in restricting news media access to the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The Obama administration joins every other presidency over the past 20 years as a Muzzle winner, said Robert O’Neil, the center’s director. “No administration has passed unscathed over this time period.”

O’Neil said there was a “sharing of responsibility” between BP and the administration but there certainly was “evidence of culpability on the part of the Administration” in limiting media access.

Other Muzzle winners include:

  • The Transportation Security Administration, which arrested a passenger who stripped to his shorts to bare the text of the Fourth Amendment on his chest to protest increased security measures such as body scans.
  • The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, for removing a work of video art that included an 11-second display of ants on a crucifix.
  • The Virginia Department of Corrections, for denying prisoners access to the book The Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook: How to Bring a Federal Lawsuit to Challenge Violations of Your Rights in Prison.
  • Mississippi state court judge Talmadge Littlejohn, who jailed a lawyer for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in his courtroom.
  • Gail Sweet, director of the Burlington County (N.J.) Library System, for removing copies of Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology because she disliked its content.
  • The administration at Albemarle (Va.) High School, for destroying all copies of a school newspaper because it contained an editorial questioning why student athletes should have to take physical education classes.
  • The administration of Hamilton College, a private college in New York, for requiring male first-year students to attend a seminar titled “She Fears You” as part of orientation.

This year’s list of Muzzles featured several recidivists, including the Virginia Department of Corrections, which received a Muzzle last year for denying a Christian inmate a copy of the CD “Life Without a Cross.”

The Albemarle County School Board also received a Muzzle in 2004 for preventing student Alan Newsom from wearing a National Rifle Association T-shirt after attending a shooting camp with his father. Newsom later successfully sued in federal court.

The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum received a 1996 Muzzle award for canceling an exhibit about the Enola Gay bomber aircraft after veterans complained that it questioned the morality of dropping atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. The exhibit was replaced by a non-controversial one.

“It is disturbing that the Virginia Department of Corrections would be receiving a Muzzle for the second year in a row,” O’Neil said, adding that he was not surprised given that “prisoners’ rights are severely restricted across the country.”

Concerning Mississippi State Court Judge Littlejohn’s jailing attorney Danny Lampley, O’Neil said, “The idea of first forcing the attorney to recite the Pledge and then citing him for criminal contempt is unbelievable and a striking example of excessive use of the criminal-contempt power.”

Facing a public reprimand by the state Commission on Judicial Performance, Littlejohn admitted that he had violated Lampley’s rights, and the courtroom pledge is now voluntary.

The awards coincide with Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. The nation’s third president was a free-speech advocate.