Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Free Speech Tussles Revealed in 2008 Muzzles

The Charlottesville-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has announced the winners of the 2008 Muzzle Awards. This year's winners include the recipient of the second "Lifetime Muzzle" to be bestowed by the Center, the Federal Communications Commission. This year's list seems to have been announced a few days earlier than normal; in previous years, the announcement was tied more closely to Mr. Jefferson's birthday, which comes on April 13 (a Sunday this year, which might explain why the Center is jumping the gun).

In a news release on the Thomas Jefferson Center's web site, the organization's president, Robert O'Neil, notes:

This year, perhaps more than any other... the incidents on which the Muzzles are based range from the imperious to the ridiculous. On one hand, the display of nooses during a civil rights march and the standing on a U.S. flag during the funeral service of U.S. soldier serve as reminders of the fundamental principle that true freedom of speech extends even to protecting expression that most in our society would find repugnant. On the other, the idea that someone in the United States today could be criminally prosecuting for cursing in their own home at an overflowing toilet, or that a rape victim could be barred from using the term “rape’ at the trial of her accused assailant, strains credibility to such a degree it is difficult to believe it actually happened.
There was one local winner: the Cavalier Daily, the student-run newspaper at the University of Virginia. According to a report by Brian McNeill in the other Charlottesville daily,
This year’s sole local recipient was the 2007 managing board of UVa’s student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily. The students were selected because Cav Daily editors forced the resignation of cartoonist Grant Woolard after his comic strip “Quirksmith” sparked a sit-in protest of 200 students outside the paper’s newsroom last fall. Woolard’s strip, titled “Ethiopian Food Fight,” depicted nearly naked and emaciated African men fighting each other with sticks, pillows, furniture and other items.

“They forced a cartoonist out of his position essentially because people were offended,” said Robert O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center and a former UVa president. “I hate to fault student editors and I hate to fault a student newspaper. But they reviewed the cartoon. They published the cartoon. And then when there’s an outrage, the sacrificial party is the cartoonist.”
In explaining its "lifetime achievement" award to the Federal Communications Commission, the Center's news release states:
The FCC or its members have been considered for a Muzzle in almost each of the 17 years of the Muzzles, winning in 1993, 2005, 2006, and 2007. The standards of the FCC for determining what is “indecent” have been inconsistent at best, regardless of the political party in control of the Congress or the White House. Moreover, the manner in which the FCC has enforced its provisions has had a profound chilling effect on broadcasters.
Other winners this year include:

Ronald M. Zaccari, President of Valdosta State University (GA), for expelling a student for protesting the school’s construction of two parking garages by posting flyers, writing a letter to the school newspaper, contacting members of the state Board of Regents and posting items on his Facebook profile.

Brandeis University (MA) Administration for declaring professor Donald Hindley guilty of harassment after he explained to his class that Mexican migrant workers are sometimes pejoratively referred to as “wetbacks.” Action was taken after a student complained, though the nearly 50-year veteran teacher was provided neither a formal hearing nor written documentation of the claims against him.

Lewis Mills High School Principal Karissa Niehoff and Connecticut Region 10 Superintendent of Schools Paula Schwartz for not allowing a student to run for class office because she posted comments critical of school officials on an Internet blog.

United States Senator Jay Rockefeller for introducing a bill that would require the FCC to maintain a policy that the broadcast of a single word or image (i.e., regardless of context) may be considered indecent and therefore punishable. Rockefeller has also been at the forefront of several other repressive efforts to regulate broadcast content.

The Texas State Democratic Party for refusing to allow presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich on the state’s primary ballot because he refused to sign a pledge that he would “fully support” the eventual Democratic nominee.

But wait, there's more:

Sarpy County (Nebraska) Attorney L. Kenneth Polikov for pursuing charges of flag mutilation and negligent child abuse against a protestor at a military funeral. The defendant’s son–a minor–placed an American flag on the ground and stood on it during the protest.

US Attorney Donald Washington and acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division Grace Chung Baker for bringing federal hate crime charges against an 18-year-old man for hanging nooses on the back of his pickup truck during a civil rights march in Jena, Louisiana.

Lancaster County (NE) District Judge Jeffre Cheuvront for barring use of the words the words “rape,” “victim,” “assailant,” “sexual assault kit,” and “sexual assault nurse examiner” by witnesses (including the victim) during a trial of a defendant on charges of sexual assault.

The New York Department of Motor Vehicles for recalling vanity license plates without offering a reasonable explanation as to why. The NY DMV demanded the return of plates that read “GETOSAMA.”

Scranton (PA) Police Department for charging a woman with disorderly conduct for screaming profanities at an overflowing toilet inside her own house.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for staging a fake news conference about FEMA assistance to victims of wildfires in southern California. FEMA employees pretended to be reporters and asked soft and gratuitous questions, while notice was given to real reporters only 15 minutes before the conference. A call-in 800 number was provided for legitimate reporters, but it was a “listen-only” arrangement.

CBS Radio and MSNBC for allowing public criticism to control their programming by taking controversial shock jock Don Imus off-the-air for his on-air sexist and racist comment regarding the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. The networks took the action despite the fact they were aware Imus frequently made such provocative comments and they could have prevented the comments from being heard by utilizing delay buttons.

More complete background information on each of the winners can be found on the Center's special "Jefferson Muzzle Page."

For those interested in the dubious achievements of previous years, check out my posts from April 29 and April 12, 2005, and this post from April 6, 2006. Click on the label "free speech," below, for other articles on this general topic of protecting free expression.

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