Jefferson Center Muzzle Awards Bestow Dishonor For Free Speech Violations

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:

  • Peoria, Illinois Mayor Jim Ardis, for authorizing a police raid on the home of parody Twitter account owner @peoriamayor, AKA local resident Jon Daniel. Although Daniel clearly flagged the account as a parody, Ardis relied on a state statute which prohibits impersonating a public official–and turns out not to apply online. Daniel was not home at the time of the police visit, but authorities arrested one of his roommates for possession of marijuana and seized the computers and other electronics of everyone in the house.
  • Bergen Community College (NJ), for suspending art and animation professor Francis Schmidt after his Google+ account automatically sent his contacts an email update including a photo of his seven-year-old daughter wearing a t-shirt that says “I will take what is mine with fire & blood.” A college dean took the automated email and the phrase from Game of Thrones as a personal threat made by Schmidt, who was suspended without pay last April and ordered to see a psychiatrist before returning to work. The school finally rescinded the suspension in September, admitting in a letter to Schmidt that it “may have unintentionally erred and potentially violated your constitutional rights.” CBLDF covered the story here.
  • Mora Co., New Mexico Board of Commissioners, for an ordinance that attempted to abridge the First Amendment rights of oil and gas companies operating in the county.
  • Bedford Co., Pennsylvania District Attorney Bill Higgins, for charging a 14-year-old boy with “desecration of a venerated object” after the teen posted on Facebook photos of himself simulating fellatio with a kneeling Jesus lawn statue. To avoid up to two years of jail time, the prankster took a plea deal which includes a six-month social media suspension, 350 hours of community service, a 10 pm curfew, and random drug tests. Despite all that, the desecration statute upon which Higgins relied is actually unconstitutional, as determined by a Supreme Court case dealing with a similar law in Texas.
  • Alabama Circuit Court Judge Claud D. Neilson, who granted an injunction against state politics blogger Roger Shuler for alleged defamation of a powerful GOP member, and jailed Shuler for contempt of court when he failed to take down the offending blog posts. Shuler spent five months in jail and was only released when he finally consented to remove the posts.
  • The Indiana Department of Corrections, for penalizing Pendleton Correctional Facility inmate Leon Benson after his sister Valerie Buford shared a video of him thanking supporters on a Facebook page she set up. Benson sent the video to his sister through a state-contracted prison communication system called J-Pay; Buford was then solely responsible for copying the video to Facebook. Indiana’s DOC maintains that was a violation of J-Pay’s user agreement and suspended Buford from using the service, but also took revenge on Benson who had violated no rules. He lost 90 days of good behavior credit, spent 90 days in “disciplinary segregation,” and had his own access to J-Pay revoked for three months.
  • Asnuntuck Community College (CT), for banning student Nicholas Saucier from campus after he confronted visiting Governor Dannel Malloy regarding veterans’ issues. During a subsequent hearing of Saucier’s case, ACC also piled on multiple due process violations. Under an onslaught of criticism from fellow students and others, the school ultimately took down its own Facebook page to curtail protests. Saucier was eventually allowed to return to campus, but warned that he would likely be suspended or expelled for even a minor violation of ACC’s conduct codes going forward.
  • The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, for revoking its offer of a tenured position in Native American Studies to Professor Steven Salaita after donors were angered by comments he had made on his personal Twitter account criticizing Israeli policy. Salaita had resigned his previous position at Virginia Tech and was in the process of moving to Illinois with his family when UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise withdrew the job offer, claiming the problem was not so much the content of Salaita’s tweets, but the tone–which of course makes no difference where First Amendment rights are concerned. Salaita has returned to Virginia Tech for the time being, but continues to fight for due process at UIUC. Chancellor Wise has disregarded a vote of no confidence in her administration from 16 academic departments on campus, as a well as a Faculty Senate committee’s report recommending that Salaita be allowed to “respond to any proposed findings of professional unfitness.”

For much more on each of these stories, be sure to check out the Jefferson Center’s 2015 Muzzle Awards page here.

Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work in 2015 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.