Friday, April 29, 2005

Muzzle Award Fails to Muzzle

Some politicians just don't learn from their own embarrassment. Or perhaps they simply have no shame.

As I noted on April 12, one of the winners of this year's Jefferson Muzzle Awards was Gerald Allen, a state legislator from Alabama. Here's how the Montgomery Advertiser put it:

State Rep. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, is a most deserving winner of an award from the Thomas Jefferson Center for Protection of Free Expression. We heartily applaud his selection.

Regrettably, however, Allen is not being recognized for his commitment to free expression, which Jefferson championed and which has been a hallmark of American liberty. Instead, he is a winner of the center's "muzzle" award, recognized for trying to suppress "the expression of a viewpoint that is at odds with his personal views."

Each year, the center marks Jefferson's birthday -- he'd have turned 262 on Wednesday -- by presenting the "muzzle" awards to individuals or organizations it believes have attempted to stifle free expression. Allen clearly qualifies.

Allen earned his award with a ridiculously broad bill he introduced that would prohibit any school or library supported with public funds from acquiring and displaying books that so much as "recognize" homosexuality. Public schools and colleges would be prohibited from staging plays with any perceived element of homosexuality.

In introducing the bill, Allen said he favored digging "a big hole" and burying such works in it. (An earlier Advertisereditorial called that "book burning without the fire," a characterization we'll stand by.)
Catherine Smith of the Southern Poverty Law Center calls attention to the constitutional implications of Allen's bizarre -- er, unique -- proposal:
Allen claims that he wants to "protect" Alabama children from the "homosexual agenda" and believes that "our culture, how we know it today, is under attack from every angle." Clearly, his bill intends to suppress ideas contained in materials that are perceived to promote homosexuality.

But like so many attempts to ban literature, Allen's anti-gay bill comes with both practical and legal problems. How exactly would the State of Alabama define what constitutes promotion of homosexuality? Who would be empowered to make those determinations?

As Juanita Owens, the director of the Montgomery City-County Library, told the Birmingham News, "Half the books in the library could end up being banned. It's all based on how one interprets the material."

A broad interpretation of Allen's proposed law might ban The Complete Works of William Shakespeare for the Bard's slapstick treatment of cross-dressing.

Practical matters aside, Allen is certainly aware that his proposed statute violates a core tenet of the First Amendment — it's commonplace knowledge that the government is prohibited from stifling speech because of its message, idea or subject matter. [See R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 u.s. 377, 386 (1992)]

And Allen's bill represents the most egregious form of content-based regulation because it is viewpoint-discriminatory. [See Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 u.s. 819, 829 (1995) (explaining that "[v]iewpoint discrimination is ... an egregious form of content discrimination").]

The bill would prohibit only those materials that promote homosexuality, leaving books that cast homosexuality in a negative light unscathed and on Alabama bookshelves.
Perhaps with tongue in cheek, the Montgomery Advertiser takes issue with that last point:
The language in Allen's bill is so broad as to ensure many disputes over whether a particular work could be said to "recognize" or "foster" or "sanction" homosexuality.

Which meaning of "sanction" is to apply? One definition is to penalize or impose a punishment against something or someone. Using that meaning, Allen's bill could be read to prohibit works that condemn homosexuality.
Despite the criticism and mockery -- if I were Gerald Allen, by this point I would have dug a hole to hide myself in, the books be damned -- the troglodyte legislator trods on. CBS News reports that Allen's bill was reintroduced and was considered by the Alabama House this week:
Republican Alabama lawmaker Gerald Allen says homosexuality is an unacceptable lifestyle. As CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann reports, under his bill, public school libraries could no longer buy new copies of plays or books by gay authors, or about gay characters.

"I don't look at it as censorship," says State Representative Gerald Allen. "I look at it as protecting the hearts and souls and minds of our children."

Books by any gay author would have to go: Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal. Alice Walker's novel "The Color Purple" has lesbian characters.

Allen originally wanted to ban even some Shakespeare. After criticism, he narrowed his bill to exempt the classics, although he still can't define what a classic is. Also exempted now Alabama's public and college libraries.
Still, CBS delivers the last word, and the last word is good:
Editor's Note: When the time for the vote in the legislature came there were not enough state legislators present for the vote, so the measure died automatically.
I think that voters, who on the whole are pretty level-headed people, elect people like Gerald Allen to office simply for their own amusement. John Merli, a columnist for the Potomac News in Manassas, Virginia, calls this "Conservative Chuckling" and says it is his new hobby. He writes:
My hobby is fairly simple. I just sit back and observe the news each day and then see what makes extremist conservatives really annoyed, and intuitively it just makes me chuckle. Often, out loud!
Although the 2005 Jefferson Muzzle Award failed to muzzle Gerald Allen, by his actions he lets us know he's angling for renomination next year.

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