“Freedom of expression cannot be limited without being lost.” Thomas Jefferson
Robert O’Neil takes TJ’s words very seriously. As executive director of the Pantops-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, each year he oversees the awarding of Jefferson Muzzles. The search for censorship in America brings a wide swath of culture within his purview, and now in addition to being able to recite Mr. Jefferson’s sage advice, O’Neil can also speak with authority on everything from the finer points of marionette sex to NASCAR and the pork industry.
Handed out each year on April 13—Jefferson’s birthday—the Muzzles offer backhanded props to those figures and institutions that try to stifle free thought and expression. Now in their 14th year, the awards have run long enough to give O’Neil fodder for great stories and a sly grin beneath his all-business demeanor.
You’ll notice some recurring themes in the 2005 awards. Muzzles go out to schools for reigning in freethinking kids. Terrorism controls are lampooned, with the iron fist of the Department of Homeland Security criticized. And while arbitrary rulings by local government officials are less prominent, O’Neil says, restrictive state legislation is on the rise as lawmakers in Virginia, Alabama and Georgia received nods this year.
Not that the Muzzles are a bastion of left-wing liberalism: O’Neil has no problem defending kids who brandish Confederate flags, homophobes piping up at school or any of the other miscreants who push the boundaries of free speech.
“High school students are inclined to be creative, and at times challenging of authority,” he says. “If you can silence the homophobic student, you have established a precedent that applies as readily on the other side. We welcome a chance to identify across the spectrum.”
On that note, the 2005 Muzzle Awards go to…
The U.S. Marshals Service
For confiscating and erasing the audio recordings of a speech by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Perhaps the U.S. Marshals, who provide security for the Supreme Court, need to pay closer attention to the Justices they protect.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Melanie Rube apparently wasn’t listening to Justice Antonin Scalia as he delivered a speech on the Constitution on April 7, 2004. During Scalia’s talk to students at Presbyterian Christian High School in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Rube interrupted the event when she noticed two reporters taping the event with audio recorders.
The reporters—Denise Grones from the Associated Press and Antoinette Konz from the Hattiesburg American—were not informed before the speech that they could not use recorders. They erased their tapes when Rube confronted them—an example of how people’s sense of their own rights can go limp when somebody flashes a badge.
Like many celebrities, Scalia often insists that his speeches not be recorded for television or radio, and TJ Center Associate Director Josh Wheeler agrees that it is Scalia’s First Amendment right to do so. However, that doesn’t give the Marshals the authority to seize private property.
Scalia agrees. Notified of the seizure, he denounced the confiscation as excessive and wrote in a letter to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press that “you are correct that the action was not taken at my direction. I was as upset as you were.”
The U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
For undue limitation of access to the country by visiting international scholars.
The line between national security and personal freedom is often difficult to draw, but in this case the TJ Center found that the government erred on the side of too much restriction.
Professor Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim scholar living in Switzerland, planned to start teaching at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 2004. His furniture had been moved to South Bend, Indiana, and his children were enrolled in schools there when he learned that the State Department had revoked his work visa.
The move was apparently ordered by the Department of Homeland Security, justified only by official reference to “public safety or national security interest.” The media, Notre Dame and Ramadan all failed to find out exactly why his visa had been denied, and he eventually withdrew his application.
A few weeks later, the State Department barred 61 Cuban scholars from attending the Latin American Studies Association conference in Las Vegas. The only explanation offered by the State Department claimed that Cuban scholars must be treated differently because “the Castro regime [allows U.S. travel only for] those academics on whom it can rely to promote its agenda of repression and misrepresentation about Cuba and the United States,” although none of the banned scholars had been impeached on that basis. Some scholars in the group had lectured at American colleges in the past.
In both cases, the absence of any reasonable national security rationale justifies a Muzzle.
The Virginia House of Delegates
For passing two bills, by wide majorities, that disregard the principles of free speech.
As 2004 drew to a close, it looked like Thomas Jefferson’s home state might be spared winning a Muzzle. At the last minute, though, the House of Delegates came through with a pair of bills that not only trampled on free speech, but made Virginia the laughing stock of the world. Thanks, guys!
First was House Bill 2797, which would have required public libraries to install content-filtering software on every library computer with Internet access. The bill, sponsored by Del. Samuel Nixon (R-Chesterfield), would have required libraries to filter out “materials deemed harmful to juveniles” or face a loss of all State funds. It was unclear about whether library officials had the authority to disable the filters when requested by an adult library patron. The bill passed the House 78 to 16.
Then Virginia became a worldwide joke when the House passed a bill drafted by Del. Algie T. Howell, Jr. (D-Norfolk) that would have criminalized low-rider pants. Exposing one’s underwear may not be the most dignified fashion trend, but a crime? Other legislators tried in vain to remind Howell and his supporters about their youthful experiments with bellbottoms, afros and lambchop sideburns, to no avail. When the bill passed 60-34 it immediately became international news, even becoming a joke on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
Fortunately, the Virginia Senate killed both bills.
The Motion Picture Classification and Rating Administration
For its attempt to shield Americans from a sex scene between two wooden puppets.
The film Team America: World Police, created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park” fame, mocks both the military’s action-hero posturing as well as the annoying celebrities who insert themselves into world events. Cast entirely with wooden marionette puppets, the movie depicts Susan Sarandon plunging from a skyscraper, the decapitation of Janeane Garofalo and Tim Robbins set on fire.
It wasn’t the violence, however, that caught the eye of the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), the people who rate movies. It was a sex scene. Between puppets. The marionettes didn’t even have genitals.
CARA rated Team America NC-17—meaning no one under 17 would be allowed—which would have severely limited the film’s distribution. Parker and Stone submitted nine increasingly sanitized versions of the offending scene before CARA finally granted them an R rating.
“We blow Janeane Garofalo’s head clean off, but it’s all about the positions of the dolls having sex,” says Parker. “It’s not funny. It’s tragic.”
And it wins a Muzzle.
The National Stock Car Racing Commission (NASCAR)
For excessively penalizing a slip of the tongue.
When Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won his fifth race at Alabama’s Talladega Superspeed-way in October, he had just emerged from his car in Victory Lane when a reporter hit him with a question about what it felt like to have five wins at that racetrack. Only his father, the late racing legend Dale Earnhardt, has more wins at Talladega.
“Don’t mean shit right now,” the younger Earnhardt said of his victory that day. “Daddy’s won here 10 times.”
The comment was broadcast on national television, and so NASCAR hit Earnhardt with a 25-point penalty for violating the commission’s language policy. The deduction knocked Earnhardt out of first place in the Nextel Cup, an important NASCAR prize.
As a private corporation, NASCAR is free to set policy and enforce their rules as they see fit. Although Earnhardt’s punishment doesn’t violate the First Amendment, NASCAR wins a Muzzle because, as the TJ Center’s Wheeler explains, “to punish Earnhardt in a manner so out of proportion to the offense sends a message far more dangerous than…the spontaneous expression of a relatively mild four-letter word.”
Role models, after all, are only human.
The Federal Communications Commission
For substantially escalating sanctions for broadcasting “indecent” material over radio and television airwaves.
It was the boob that rocked America.
During the halftime performance of the February 1, 2004, Super Bowl, viewers across the country caught an all-of-half-a-second eyeful when pop superstar Janet Jackson flashed her breast to the crowd. The fallout from Miss Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” is largely credited for having triggered an FCC crackdown on the airwaves; namely, a rash of six- and seven-figure fines for “indecent” material on TV and radio.
For the so-called Nipplegate, the FCC smacked Super Bowl broadcaster CBS with a $550,000 fine, the largest indecency fine in history. A month later, Fox Television usurped the dubious honor when the reality series “Married by America” drew a stunning $1.2 million fine. The FCC reportedly received 159 letters complaining about an episode that chronicled the bachelor and bachelorette parties of the newly paired-off singles, featuring “sexually explicit” footage such as bachelors licking whipped cream off strippers’ bodies. (It should be noted that 159 letters equaled less than one complaint per affiliate station that ran the show.)
These fines, plus those leveled at perennial “shock jock” Howard Stern and his broadcaster, Clear Channel Radio, earned the FCC more money through indecency in 2004 than in the past 10 years combined.
The chilling effect of the fines was revealed when ABC scheduled a broadcast of Steven Spielberg’s graphic WWII film Saving Private Ryan on Veteran’s Day. Citing the profanity and violence in the film, 66 affiliate stations concerned about FCC sanctions declined to broadcast the movie, effectively self-censoring themselves. The commission ruled long after the airing that the film’s violence and use of the F-word was safe for public consumption.
It was a surprising ruling since, in 2003, the FCC declared that any use of the word “fuck” was indecent, whether used as a verb or an adjective. Instead of clarifying an already murky definition of “indecency,” the FCC has, in the past year, made things even more confusing.
The Democratic and Republican National Parties
For demonstrating little appreciation of the First Amendment during the 2004 presidential election.
In Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s own words, “a very small number of people got out of hand” while protesting the September 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. What then to make of the 1,800 protesters who were arrested?
Many of the arrests stemmed from mass detainments. In some cases, police indiscriminately arrested those legally exercising their right to free expression, or even people who simply happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. After the convention, in one instance 227 protesters were cleared of all charges after a videotape showed no illegal activity on their parts.
The July 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston boasted fewer arrests, perhaps because protesters were confined to a pen that Judge Douglas Woodlock described as resembling an “internment camp.” Ironically dubbed the “Free Speech Zone,” the cage measured 300’x90′, was located under abandoned railroad tracks a block away from the DNC’s home base at Fleet Center, surrounded by an 8′ chain link fence topped off with razor wire and mesh netting and surrounded by armed law enforcement officers. Critics argued that the effect of protests within this “free speech zone” was comparable to protesting underwater.
While it’s natural that security concerns are taken seriously in a post-9/11 world, in the words of Julie Hilden, commentator for legal commentary website FindLaw, “why would someone trying to change the system through protest be more likely than others to resort to violence to destroy the system? The person holding the placard is probably not the one we have to worry about.” Equating protesters with terrorists strikes at the heart of the First Amendment.
Leaders of both parties failed to denounce the actions of their members that suppressed free expression. Some people, after all, like to think of America as one big “Free Speech Zone.”
Alabama State Rep.Gerald Allen
For proposing a bill that would prohibit the use of public funds for the purchase of textbooks or library materials that recognize homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle.
State Rep. Gerald Allen grabbed headlines this year when he tried to ban all books about gays. He told the Birmingham News that novels with gay protagonists and some college textbooks would have to be destroyed if his bill passed. “I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them,” he said.
The director of the Montgomery County Library worried that “half the books in the library could end up being banned. It’s all based on how one interprets the material.” If Allen had his way, it would mean classics like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Chorus Line, The Color Purple and Shakespeare’s As You Like It could all end up six feet under. Mark Potok from the Southern Poverty Law Center called the bill censorship. “It sounds like Nazi book-burning to me,” he says.
Georgia State Rep. Ben Bridges
For pushing a bill that would permit the teaching in the state’s public schools only of “scientific fact,” and would specifically bar the teaching of the Darwinian theory of evolution.
Rep. Ben Bridges must have missed that day in fifth grade when they talked about the scientific method.
The scientific method uses hypothesis, predictions, experiments and theories, but has no category for “scientific fact.” For example, the hypothesis that some fundamentalist Christian politicians can be morons is reliably predicted and experimentally sound—but still not a fact.
Dr. Sarah Pallas, a Georgia State University biology professor, says, “The idea that matter is made of atoms is a theory. The idea that there is some kind of force that brings us back to earth if we jump up is a theory, it’s called gravitational theory.”
Bridges is just one of many players trying to keep evolution from being taught in schools. Georgia’s Cobb County School Board tried to place stickers on science textbooks calling evolution a theory, not a fact. In pushing his legislation, Bridges insisted, “Let’s teach them the truth or don’t teach them anything.” Thankfully, Bridges’ fellow legislators were unswayed by his logic. Timmy and Tommy can still learn the theories of relativity and gravity in Georgia. At least, for now.
Berkmar High School (Georgia) Principal Kendall Johnson
For censoring two editorials from the student newspaper, and then censoring the word “censored.”
They sure do breed sensitive flowers in Georgia. Not only are Georgians worried about polluting their young tykes with the theory of evolution, but it’s not even safe to say “gay.”
When Berkmar senior Fiorella Soto started a Gay Lesbian and Straight Society after-school club, parents first tried to force the school to close the club or change its name. One parent said the name alone was “very sexually explicit, provocative and inflammatory,” endangering “the well-being of the students.”
Editors of the student newspaper, The Liberty, prepared a point-counterpoint debate on the club to run alongside a news piece. Principal Kendall Johnson censored the debate based on concerns that it would be disruptive during finals week. When The Liberty editors wanted to run a “censored” stamp where the debate would have appeared, Johnson censored that, too.
That capricious decision didn’t deter the students, who eventually saw both editorials run in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We knew it was controversial and we suspected it would be censored, but we have that feeling a lot and that doesn’t stop us from writing,” said Liberty editor L’Anita Weiler.
Poway High School in California, Climax public schools in Minnesota and Russell High School in Kentucky
For barring students from wearing articles of clothing that were deemed potentially offensive to other students.
It’s rough being a teenager. You still have to go to bed when you’re told to, eat what you’re offered and wear… only what your principal likes? That’s the way it worked for kids across the county last year, when the heads of their high schools played fashion police over their wardrobes.
Jacqueline Duty was stopped by two police officers as she tried to enter her Russell High School senior prom in May 2004 because of her dress. The frock, featuring the pattern of a Confederate flag, was deemed potentially offensive by the school administration. (The bright red sequined dress is actually quite nice, described as a “a classically cut strapless sheath, ankle-length with a shallow slit on one side,” by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.) Duty is now trying to sue the pants off of the administration, asking for $50,000 in damages in federal district court.
In California, Tyler Chase Harper was detained for a day in the principal’s office at Poway High School after he showed up wearing the slogan “Homosexuality is Shameful” on his t-shirt. Harper fashioned the shirt by scrawling the words in magic marker on duct tape and sticking it on. Other messages included “Be Ashamed,” and “Our School Embraced What God Has Condemned.”
Harper wore the shirt on April 21, a national Day of Silence on college and high school campuses to protest discrimination against homosexuals.
“I was appalled that my school would take such a controversial issue and only allow one side to be heard,” Harper told the Union-Tribune of San Diego. “I presented a message that was scriptural, biblical. I feel like my rights were violated and I had no freedom of speech.”
Tyler is now suing the school district. “The district is asking students to be politically correct, the lawsuit asks that (the district) be constitutionally correct,” said his attorney, Robert Tyler.
In Climax-Shelly, Minnesota, the district superintendent ruled that students should do as she says, not as parents do, when she prevented kids from wearing t-shirts with a town motto to school. The burg of 260 adopted the slogan, “Climax—It’s More than Just a Feeling,” during its centennial in 1996. Students had worn clothes with the slogan, excerpted from a Boston song, for years when the superintendent banned it in February 2004. Senior Bethany Grove was suspended for a day when she and 11 other students wore the slogan on a shirt at school. Grove was the only student who refused to turn her t-shirt inside out.
High School of Legal Studies in Brooklyn, New York
For refusing a class valedictorian her diploma because she made comments critical of her high school in her graduation speech.
Tiffany Schely lived her teenage rebellion on stage at her high school graduation ceremony, as she delivered her commencement speech.
Schely was editor of the school newspaper, yearbook chairwoman, member of the student council and valedictorian at the High School of Legal Studies, and she used her commencement soapbox to comment on the school’s lack of textbooks, overcrowded classes, unqualified teachers and principal turnover (four in four years). School officials edited her speech beforehand and then cut off her microphone when she delivered it as originally written. She was escorted from the graduation ceremony and when she went to get her diploma, she was told she would have to apologize first. “It was the truth, and the truth hurts,” she said.
School officials relented after Schely’s case became a cause celebre. “What bozo tried to hold back a diploma in a country where freedom of speech is so prized, I don’t know,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In July, Schely was honored by the City Council for standing up for her rights. She is now studying at Smith College in Massachusetts on full scholarship.