April 21-27, 2000
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Jefferson Center hands out a dozen 'Muzzles'

By Dan Heuchert

There's a whole lot of censorship going on -- at least according to the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, which this year awarded a record-tying 12 "Jefferson Muzzles."

Announced on April 13, the anniversary of the University founder's birth, the awards "draw national attention to abridgements of free speech and press and, at the same time, foster an appreciation for those tenets of the First Amendment," the center, directed by U.Va. law professor Robert M. O'Neil, said in a statement.

The ninth annual award-winners are:

  • The George W. Bush Presidential Campaign, for threatening to sue a man who parodied Bush's official campaign Web site. Although the satirist revised the content, Bush's campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission asking that the site be forced to comply with rules governing political action committees. The Jefferson Center commented that Bush's actions may signal an inclination to limit free speech on the Internet if he is elected.

  • The Clinton Administration, for continuing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for dealing with gay members of the armed forces. Specifically cited was the case of Arizona State Rep. Steve May, who was discharged from the Army Reserves after revealing his homosexuality on the floor of the state House of Representatives. "In punishing Rep. May for civilian speech, the ... policy reaches well beyond military life," the center's citation said.

  • Muscogee (Ga.) County Superintendent of Education Guy W. Sims, for ordering teachers' aides to alter a famous portrait of George Washington crossing the Delaware River that appeared in new editions of a fifth-grade textbook. In the portrait, Washington is wearing a watch fob which Sims feared students could perceive as genitalia.

  • CBS News, for digitally substituting its own logo for an NBC logo that appeared in the background of its coverage of New Year's Eve celebrations in New York's Times Square. "News organizations bear a responsibility to draw a bright line between fantasy and reality," the center commented. "The public trusts that images appearing in the context of news programming are accurate. That trust could be destroyed if news organizations begin altering what is seen through the camera, especially for self-serving purposes."

  • The Midland (Tex.) Independent School District and Midland High principal Neil Richmond, for suspending a student and refusing to allow him to participate in graduation ceremonies because he photographed the principal's car parked in front of a certain house -- "a picture that could cause the principal some embarrassment." The photographs, though legally taken and never brought to school property, constituted "disrespect for an adult," the principal said. The center cited school officials for "placing avoidance of personal embarrassment far ahead of another's First Amendment rights."

  • Ponder (Tex.) Independent School District superintendent Byron Welsh, Ponder High principal Chance Allen and assistant principal Ted Heers, who the center said "overreacted by far" to a student author's work. A few days before Halloween, Christopher Beamon was assigned to write a horror story, and received extra credit for reading it aloud. The story mentioned shooting three classmates and a teacher; when the students' parents complained, a sheriff's deputy was summoned and Beamon was held for six days and five nights in a detention center. The center cited school officials for "suppressing academic freedom and the young essayist's free speech rights."

  • The Board of Trustees of Georgetown Charter Township, Mich., for filtering access to the Internet at its public terminals. Although Michigan law allows libraries to limit minors' access to certain sites, the Georgetown board opted to limit all users' access. The center noted that the filters block access to some non-offensive sites, as well as sites containing sexually explicit, but not legally obscene, content.

  • The Rockingham County (Va.) School Board, Spotswood High principal C. James Slye and superintendent John H. Kidd, for ordering an English teacher to remove from his classroom door a pamphlet about book censorship. The teacher, Jeffrey Newton, had routinely posted each year's edition of an American Library Association pamphlet that lists the previous year's most-banned and challenged books. After a parent complained, the superintendent ordered the pamphlet removed. The center "questions the judgment" of the school officials involved.

  • The 1999 Virginia General Assembly, for rejecting an application to include the Confederate battle flag on a special license plate for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The citation, while acknowledging the offensive nature of the symbol, noted that the legislature created a public forum by offering groups their own plates, then engaged in "clear viewpoint discrimination" by barring the Confederate group from using the flag on its plates.

  • Lorain County (Ohio) prosecutor Gregory A. White, for pressing child obscenity charges against Cynthia Stewart for pictures she took of her 3-year-old daughter's bath. The center noted, "There was no evidence that Nora was sexually abused, no evidence that Ms. Stewart took the photographs for some sexual purpose of her own, and no evidence that the photographs were to be used for a commercial purpose or to be displayed anywhere but in the family photo album. Yet Stewart, a prolific photographer who had taken more than 40,000 pictures of her daughter previously, was suspended from her job, incurred $30,000 in legal fees and was threatened with jail time and loss of custody.

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation, for seeking the removal of video it deemed unsettling from an Internet site. The six-minute video included realistic-looking images of unrest in Times Square, while suggesting that the government might incite a riot there on New Year's Eve. The filmmaker, Michael Zieper, and the host of the Internet site, Mark Wieger, say federal agents pressed them to remove the video from the site. The center cited the FBI "for acting as though it believed or assumed that citizens are not free to post unsettling fictional images on Internet Web sites."

  • New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani -- who last year earned a lifetime Muzzle from the center -- for attempting to cut $7 million in city funding for the Brooklyn Museum and evict it from its city-owned building due to an exhibit called "Sensation." Giuliani was particularly offended by one piece titled "The Holy Virgin Mary," which depicts Mary with African features, and attached a clump of elephant dung as well as magazine cutouts of female genitalia. "The First Amendment issue here is not whether 'Sensation' is good art or bad art," the citation said, "but whether Mayor Giuliani may answer that question for all New Yorkers rather than allowing them to answer it for themselves." The city later settled a federal lawsuit over the case by restoring the funding, plus an additional $5.8 million for capital projects.


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