Tuesday, April 12, 2005

2005 Jefferson Muzzle Awards Announced

Each year since 1992, the Charlottesville-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has presented the "Jefferson Muzzle" awards in order to draw attention to abridgments of freedom of speech and expression that disregard "Mr. Jefferson's admonition that freedom of speech 'cannot be limited without being lost.'"

Some of this year's Muzzle recipients are too obvious to ignore: the Federal Communications Commission, for instance, for its hysterical overreaction to Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl. As humorous that bit of Mrs-Grundyism was, however, it was simply a symptom of a deeper fear of freedom of expression on the part of the FCC. The Jefferson Center explains:

The FCC's sharply heightened scrutiny of possibly "indecent" material seems to have opened the door for a host of private interest groups - American Family, Parents Television Council and others - that have not only brought intense pressure back upon the FCC, but have also raised the stakes substantially in Congress. Although both houses have not yet taken final action, it seems almost certain that the array of possible sanctions for "indecency" will be expanded markedly, and the ceiling on permissible fines will be increased many fold.

Yet, despite the steeply mounting dollar levels and number of sanctions, the FCC has done little to prospectively inform broadcasters as to what constitutes "indecency." In fact, its actions of the past year have led to more uncertainty than ever with the result that broadcasters are engaging more and more in the same kind of self-censorship exhibited with the Saving Private Ryan broadcast. In February 2005, PBS advised member stations to air a sanitized version of a Frontline documentary on the war in Iraq because the uncut version had soldiers cursing. Prior to that, the producers of Masterpiece Theater for the first time edited the content of the critically acclaimed British series "Prime Suspect" before sending it to PBS member stations, an Indianapolis radio station pre-empted words like "urinate," "damn" and "orgy" during a broadcast of Rush Limbaugh's talk show, several classic rock radio stations have struck numerous songs from their play lists including Elton John's "The Bitch is Back" and the Rolling Stones' "Bitch," and a number of radio stations will no longer feature any live broadcasts.


Some patterns in this year's crop of Muzzles emerge. Carlos Santos points out in today's Richmond Times-Dispatch that one-third of the awards are presented to high schools around the country:
Five of the 15 awards were given to high school administrators who, almost invariably, come down too hard on students' free expression, at least in the center's judgment.

"Schools are the first place that education and understanding of free expression should be enhanced," said [Center president Robert] O'Neil. "They're sending a message that students aren't able to tolerate controversial views. . . . They are definitely sending the wrong message."

The high school muzzles went to:

* Principal Kendall Johnson of Berkmar High School in Georgia for censoring point/counterpoint editorials in the school newspaper debating whether a new club, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Society, should meet on school grounds.

* School officials at Russell High School in Kentucky for barring a female student from the prom because her red dress was styled as a Confederate battle flag. The student wanted to show her pride in her Southern heritage. The school deemed the dress too controversial.

* The school administration at Poway High School in California for giving a daylong detention to a student for wearing a T-shirt proclaiming "Homosexuality is Shameful."

* Shirley Moberg, the superintendent of Climax-Shelly School District in Minnesota, for banning the wearing of the city of Climax's official centennial T-shirt because of its sexual innuendo. The T-shirts read: "Climax - More than a Feeling."

* The school administration at the High School of Legal Studies in New York City's Brooklyn, for denying valedictorian Tiffany Schley her diploma after her graduation speech in which she cited the school's turnover in principals and what she called a lack of textbooks and overcrowded classrooms. The school wanted an apology.

Writing in the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, political beat reporter Bob Gibson notes that three of the Muzzle awards deal with gay issues -- though not, in each case, an attempt from the right to muzzle pro-gay sentiments:
Individuals in Alabama and Georgia, along with a California school district administration, won awards for vastly different stances on gay rights.

One was an attempt to suppress speech supporting gay rights while another was a bid to prohibit expression of the belief that homosexuality is immoral. A third was a high school principal’s censorship of a school newspaper’s editorials debating whether a student group should meet on school grounds.

In the last case, the Muzzle went to Berkmar High School Principal Kendall Johnson in Georgia for censoring the point/counterpoint editorials debating whether the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Society should be allowed to meet at the high school. Johnson did not let the newspaper, the Liberty, run a “censored” stamp on the page where the editorials would have appeared, O’Neil said.

Alabama state Rep. Gerald Allen won for proposing a bill to prohibit the use of state funds for any purchase of “textbooks or library materials that recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle.”

A Muzzle was awarded to the school administration at Poway High School in California for a day-long detention given to a Christian student wearing a T-shirt that said, “Homosexuality is Shameful.”

“It was not a happy day for him,” O’Neil said of the detained student, Tyler Chase Harper, who has since filed a federal lawsuit claiming free speech and religious liberty violations. The suit is pending.

It should come as no surprise that at least one of the Muzzles is staying close to home. The Virginia House of Delegates is singled out for two bills that failed once the more deliberative and sane state Senate got hold of them -- one of which, the infamous "droopy drawers" bill, drew national and international ridicule.

Let the Jefferson Center explain in full:
Although they deal with entirely different subjects, two bills recently passed by one chamber of the Virginia General Assembly share a common trait: a belief that government could and should legislate matters of personal taste and expression. Discussed in 2004, presented by four Republican patrons in 2005, and passed by a 78 to 16 vote in the House of Delegates, House Bill No. 2797 would require public libraries to install content filtering software on every library computer with Internet access or lose all state funding. Filtering software is designed to block access to certain kinds of material. Among the categories of content to which House Bill 2797 would prevent access was material "deemed harmful to juveniles." Public statements by many of the bill's supporters claimed the measure was simply a state version of a federal law passed by Congress and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In fact, the proposed Virginia bill differed in constitutionally significant ways from its federal counterpart. The federal law, for example, only concerned federal funding specifically designated to finance Internet access. Thus, it was essentially an example of government placing a condition on funding for a particular program. Virginia Bill No. 2797, by contrast, was punitive in nature, threatening to cut off all state funding to any library that failed to install Internet filters. In addition, the Virginia bill was at best ambiguous on whether library officials had the authority to disable the filters when requested by an adult library patron. This aspect of the federal law was key in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to uphold the law. Implicit in that decision was the recognition that Internet filters are far from perfect and often do not distinguish constitutionally protected material from that which is not. Under the Virginia law, however, an adult library patron is not only prevented from accessing information that is constitutionally protected, but may only view material that is deemed appropriate for minors.

In a second bill proposed by Delegate Algie T. Howell, Jr., a Democrat from Norfolk, the House of Delegates attempted to limit what adults and minors alike could see outside the context of public libraries; House Bill No. 1981 sought to criminalize a current fashion trend among many young people today -- the wearing of low riding pants that expose their underwear. An assistant attorney general advised a House committee that the bill could not be enforced without violating the free expression and due process clauses of the Constitution. Delegate Lionell Spruill opposed the bill asking his colleagues to remember their own youthful fashion follies, but to no avail -- the measure passed the House by a 60-34 vote. The bill quickly became the subject of ridicule across the country, even inspiring a joke by Tonight Show host Jay Leno that it was vehemently opposed by the Plumbers' Union.

Fortunately, neither of the two bills discussed above became law. Both failed to make it out of committee in the Virginia Senate. This outcome in the Senate, especially when compared to the wide majorities by which both bills passed the House, serves to illustrate that principles of free speech played little part in the lower chamber's deliberations over these two measures and thereby earns the Virginia House of Delegates a 2005 Jefferson Muzzle.

Other Jefferson Muzzle recipients this year include the Republican and Democratic parties, for their attempts to use the state's police power to suppress dissenting voices during their political conventions in 2004, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings board, for its insistence that sex scenes performed by puppets in the satirical film, Team America: World Police, had to be toned down in order to earn an R rating (while ignoring bloody violence that included the decapitation of Janeane Garofalo).

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression performs a great service each year by drawing our attention to these egregious violations of human rights. While not every case involves a government using its heavy hand to keep citizens down, even those awards to private entities (such as the political parties or the MPAA) help us to realize how ridiculous and unjustified such actions are.

Nominations for the 2006 Jefferson Muzzles are already being collected. We can't wait.