April 12-18, 2002
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Reactions to Sept. 11 featured in annual ‘Muzzle’ Awards

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Reactions to Sept. 11 featured in annual ‘Muzzle’ Awards

Thomas Jefferson Staff report

For the 11th straight year, U.Va.’s Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has bestowed a dubious distinction on those whom it deems “have forgotten Jefferson’s warning that freedom of expression cannot be limited without being lost.”

Since 1991, the center has awarded “Jefferson Muzzles” to some 90 people and organizations, including two U.S. presidents, three U.S. senators, the U.S. Congress (twice), the national conventions of the two major American political parties, two governors, two state legislatures, two mayors, 22 public school principals and school boards, seven judges, five prosecutors, seven law enforcement agencies, and a host of other public and private groups and individuals.

“It was not a good year for free speech,” said center director Robert M. O’Neil, a law professor and First Amendment expert. “The tragic events of Sept. 11 created new pressures on free expression and have also made it harder to arouse public concern about those pressures.”

The Defense Department and Secretary Rumsfeld were awarded a Muzzle for curbing media coverage of troops “to an unprecedented degree” in Afghanistan. The center also gave a Muzzle to hecklers who made it impossible for a California university graduation speaker to finish her speech because she asked the audience to consider the degree to which our civil liberties should be compromised in the name of security.

“Many of the people and groups we cite have the best of intentions,” he said. “They honestly believe that some higher value or interest justifies inhibiting speech. We have the unhappy task of telling them why we feel they are wrong — and why we believe Mr. Jefferson would also take them to task,” O’Neil said.

The center’s board of trustees selects the recipients from what O’Neil called “a distressingly large number of candidates.”

This year’s other winners (and the center’s rationale for their selection) are:
• The Kettle Moraine (Wisc.) School District, for refusing to permit a second-grade student to distribute Valentine’s Day cards that contained religious messages while allowing all sorts of other non-religious Valentine’s Day cards to be exchanged among students.

• The New York Police Department Intelligence Division’s Threat Assessment Unit, for arresting a city employee because he wrote a letter accusing the Staten Island borough president of being a “bigot.”

• The coalition of Brown University (R.I.) students who stole 4,000 copies of The Brown Daily Herald, for stealing nearly the entire press run of a single issue of the university’s student newspaper from boxes around the campus because the issue contained a full-page paid ad that the coalition believed was racist, and because the paper allegedly provided inadequate coverage of racial and ethnic issues on campus.

• The administration of Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School, Fitchburg, Mass., for suspending five students for expressing racist views in response to a survey seeking their personal opinions of the school and its student body, despite assuring that the responses would remain confidential.

• Dacula (Ga.) High School principal Donald Nutt, for canceling a school theatrical production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men just two days before its scheduled opening because of the play’s profanity and racially charged language.

• Kanawha County (W.Va.) Board of Education and Sissonville High School principal Forrest Mann, for refusing to allow a 15-year-old student to form a club opposed to the United States war in Afghanistan.

• The Hamilton County (Ind.) prosecutor’s office, for bringing criminal charges against a man for violating a clearly unconstitutional state law prohibiting flag desecration.


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