Jefferson Center Calls Out Free Speech Violations With 2014 Muzzle Awards

Jefferson muzzledIt’s time once again for the Muzzle Awards, presented annually by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression to “recognize” individuals or organizations that have committed egregious violations against free speech in the past year. This year the undignified winners include:

  • The U.S. Department of Justice, for aggressively pursuing sources of government leaks by extracting reporters’ phone records and emails from communications companies via search warrants and secret subpoenas.

  • The White House Press Office, for blocking photojournalists’ access to President Obama and other officials while releasing scads of images taken by the White House’s own photographers.

  • The National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security, for sending cease and desist letters to in order to stop seller Dan McCall from using parodies of the agencies’ official seals on merchandise. The NSA and DHS did finally acknowledge that parody is protected by the First Amendment–but after three years and a lawsuit from McCall.

  • The North Carolina General Assembly Police, for impeding freedom of the press by arresting Charlotte Observer reporter Tim Funk as he was covering a protest inside the Assembly building in Raleigh. Charges against Funk were dropped as soon as the District Attorney saw video of his arrest, during which he repeatedly stated that he was a reporter.

  • The Kansas Board of Regents, for implementing a draconian social media policy for faculty and staff of public universities after University of Kansas professor David Guth criticized the National Rifle Association on Twitter following the Washington, DC Navy Yard shootings. The Regents have formed a workgroup of faculty and staff to review and make recommendations on the policy, but have refused to suspend it in the meantime.

  • Modesto [California] Junior College, which blocked student Robert Van Tuinen from handing out copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day because he was not within the school’s designated “free speech area.” Aided by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Van Tuinen sued and received $50,000 in damages as well as the abolition of the college’s restrictive speech policy.

  • The Tennessee State Legislature, for passing a new “ag-gag” bill that would penalize individuals who film abuse of livestock but fail to turn the footage over to authorities within 48 hours. The bill, sponsored by two legislators with direct interests in the livestock industry, was designed to curtail information-gathering by undercover activists and reporters. Although it was eventually vetoed by Governor Bill Haslam, the sponsors vowed to try again during the next legislative session.

  • Wharton High School Principal Brad Woods of Tampa, Florida, who cut off salutatorian Harold Shaw in the middle of his graduation speech after Shaw stumbled over a few words. The action was apparently taken in retribution for Shaw’s previous criticism of the condition of the school’s restrooms.

  • Pemberton Township [New Jersey] High School Principal Ida Smith, for censoring three stories from the school newspaper. In one issue, Smith edited out important facts from an article about the departure of the school’s athletic director and put the kibosh on another story about students smoking in the restrooms. When student reporters tried to run a story in a subsequent issue about free speech rights in public schools, Smith also vetoed that one while “somehow avoiding being crushed under the weight of all the irony in the world.”

For more details on all these stories, check out the Jefferson Center’s 2014 Muzzles page over here!

We need your help to keep fighting for the right to read! Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work by visiting the Rewards Zonemaking a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!

Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.