Every year, Thomas Jefferson’s birthday marks a tradition that presumably would’ve made the dude proud. On April 13, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression celebrated the 20th annual “Muzzles,” awards given “to those responsible for some of the more egregious or ridiculous affronts to free expression occurring in the previous year.”
Quiet time: Albemarle High School received one of eight Muzzles awarded by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression for destroying an issue of the student newspaper that criticized physical education courses.
Among recipients, the Muzzles tend to generate a mixture of stonewalling, defensive declarations of innocence and, very occasionally, genuine remorse, says Jefferson Center director Bob O’Neil. This year’s crop is a wide-ranging mix of time-honored establishments and scrappy upstarts, all united, in the Center’s estimation, by a singular passion for crushing free speech wherever it rears its head.
The smallest honoree is Hamilton College, a liberal arts school in upstate New York. At the start of the school year, Hamilton required all freshman boys to attend the cheerily titled seminar “She Fears You” as part of orientation. The Jefferson Center commended the seminar for shining a light on pervasive cultural misogyny and condemning rape, but had a problem with the mandatory nature of the thing. The Center also took issue with the program’s treatment of audience members as bigots “in need of thought reform,” in the words of National Association of Scholars spokesperson Ashley Thorne.
The next two award winners both took part in the centuries-old tradition of withholding the written word because, to quote Bobby Seale, “the Man don’t like it.” And the first is local: Albemarle High School was cited for destroying all copies of the student newspaper because gym teachers grumbled about an anti-P.E. editorial. Albemarle High officials declined to comment, but Principal Jay Thomas previously told Lynchburg’s News & Advance that the papers were destroyed because the controversial editorial contained typos.
Meanwhile, Gail Sweet, head of a New Jersey county’s public libraries, was hit with a Muzzle for kowtowing to the demands of a local and vocal Tea Partier who called an anthology of essays by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth “pervasively vulgar, obscene, and inappropriate.” The book, Revolution Voices, is about the struggles of coming out, but Sweet promptly pulled it after classifying it as child pornography.
Next up is Talmadge Littlejohn, the Mississippi judge who held a lawyer in contempt of court and jailed him for five hours because he stood during the Pledge of Allegiance but didn’t recite the words.
Back in the Old Dominion, the Center nails the Virginia Department of Corrections, which blocked a prisoner from obtaining The Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook, a guide to the legal process for suing over rights violations in prison. The matter was settled in March before it could make it to court in Charlottesville. Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor tells C-VILLE that the book is now available to all prisoners and that it was blocked out of concern for the “balance between safety and security of our facilities, employees and offenders.”
According to O’Neil, court-ordered solutions to First Amendment problems don’t necessarily prevent a Muzzle. “Classically, if it takes a lawsuit to get the policy changed or the agency really drags its feet and resists, we would not take that as a genuine change of heart,” he says.
Moving into federal territory, the Center cites the Smithsonian Institution for shutting down a National Portrait Gallery video that included the image of ants crawling on a crucifix. Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough ordered the video, a four-minute piece by artist David Wojnarowicz, removed a day after a Catholic group complained. Representatives of the Smithsonian Institution had no official comment, but a spokesperson for the National Portrait Gallery says, “Unofficially? The museum should be recognized for having this exhibit in the first place.”
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) takes the next Muzzle for arresting college student Aaron Tobey, a Charlottesville resident, at Richmond International Airport. Tobey had written part of the text of the Fourth Amendment on his chest—that’s the one about unreasonable search and seizure—and stripped down to his underwear to go through a security screening. Prosecutors dropped “disturbing the peace” charges against Tobey less than two weeks after his arrest. He’s now suing the TSA for $250,000.
And crowning the list: the Obama administration, which shares the honor with BP. BP contractors and federal authorities blocked journalists’ access to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, even as the damaged rig hemorrhaged crude oil into Gulf Coast waters for at least three months after the initial leak. Permits were denied, seaplanes were grounded and arrests were threatened, all in the name of closing off access to the spill.
So, there you have it! Eight—nine if you count BP separately—winners; some surprises (the strenuously liberal Hamilton College, for example), others not (every single presidential administration since the awards began in 1991 has gotten a Muzzle), but egregious free speech violators all. C-VILLE’s bookie will now start taking bets for next year.