We all recall Thomas Jefferson’s quip: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” No doubt, if Jefferson were alive today, he would include blogs as well as newspapers — and perhaps even cheekily elevate blogs above newspapers.
Each year the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression celebrates its namesake’s birthday by awarding the Jefferson Muzzles to malevolent or stupid government officials or agencies that violate the spirit and the letter of the First Amendment by preventing or punishing speech.
The TJ Center’s executive director, Josh Wheeler, explains why his organization continues to bestow Muzzles after two dozen years. The award, he says,
challenges the assumption held by many that, because of the First Amendment, attempts at censorship are few and far between in this country. In fact, such acts occur every day. Our hope is that the Jefferson Muzzles help to dispel the complacency with which many view free speech issues.
Here are summaries of this year’s honorees, released to just two minutes ago. Fuller explanations can be seen at www.tjcenter.org.
• Peoria, Illinois Mayor Jim Ardis for ordering a police investigation into the identity of the man responsible for @peoriamayor, a Twitter parody account of the mayor. Despite warning from his own police chief that the account appeared to be entirely legal, Ardis and others on his staff continued looking for ways to shut the account down, ultimately leading to a raid on the parodist’s home.
• Mora Co. (New Mexico) Board of Commissioners for its ordinance banning oil and gas extraction within the county which purported to strip oil and gas companies of their First and Fifth Amendment rights.
• Bedford County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney Bill Higgins for charging a Pennsylvania teenager with “desecration of a venerated object” after the 14-year-old posted pictures on Facebook showing him placing his (clothed) crotch near the mouth of a statue of Jesus. Rather than risk a guilty verdict and a possible two year prison sentence, the boy agreed to probation including 350 hours of community service and a six-month ban on social media.
• Alabama Circuit Court Judge Claud D. Neilson for ignoring a basic [tenet] of defamation law that “equity will not enjoin a libel” and holding blogger Roger Shuler in contempt of court until he removed allegedly defamatory statements from his website. Shuler spent five months in jail before finally agreeing to remove the statements because he felt he could not endure jail any longer.
• The Indiana Department of Corrections for revoking access to J-Pay (a service that allows incarcerated persons and their relatives to exchange emails and short videos) to the sister of a prisoner because she reposted a video on her Facebook page asking people to attend her brother’s upcoming court hearing.
• The Administration of Bergen Community College (New Jersey) for suspending a professor for eight days and ordering he undergo a psychiatric exam because of a photo he shared with his with his Google+ contacts. The photo showed the professor’s seven-year-old daughter wearing a T-shirt featuring a quote from the popular HBO series, Game of Thrones: “I will take what is mine with fire and blood.”
• The Administration of Asnuntuck Community College (Connecticut) for its disciplinary action stemming from a student’s on-campus conversation with Governor Daniel Malloy. After speaking to Gov. Malloy on camera regarding recent gun legislation, the student was escorted off campus by the college president and a campus security officer. He was suspended and charged with harassment, threats, and failure to “demonstrate good citizenship.” In addition to repeatedly refusing to review the student’s exculpatory video evidence, school officials removed the ACC Facebook page entirely when commentators began criticizing the school’s actions.
There is just one Muzzle this year with a Virginia nexus. Previous years have sometimes had multiple recipients from the Old Dominion. Fortunately, the winner is from Illinois, for actions that harmed a former Virginia Tech faculty member.
• The Administration of The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for withdrawing an offer of employment to Steven Salaita because of his tweets criticizing Israeli activities in the Gaza strip. In anticipation of moving to Illinois from Virginia, Salaita resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech, rented his own house in Virginia, made several trips to Illinois to meet with his future colleagues and look for a place to live, and put down a nonrefundable deposit on a condominium. Less than two weeks before he was to begin teaching, the University informed Salaita that they were revoking his offer.
Now that the 2015 Muzzles have been released, it is time to start collecting nominees for 2016. No doubt a presidential election campaign will provide plenty of opportunities for government institutions — especially colleges and universities — to misuse their authority with regard to political speech.
And, finally, where else will you see a word like “Asnuntuck”?