For the third time in the 21-year history of the Jefferson Muzzle awards for attacks on Americans' free speech, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has awarded a dubious "lifetime achievement award" for continued attempts at suppressing speech.
The Virginia Department of Corrections has earned the recognition for "a pattern of disregard for the First Amendment rights of Virginia inmates," said Josh Wheeler, the center's director.
The DOC joins two other lifetime achievers in curtailing free expression: Rudy Giuliani, who received it in 1999, and the Federal Communications Commission, which received the "honor" in 2008.
"We hope the Muzzles make people laugh, shake their heads and maybe get a little angry. We also hope the Muzzles will, perhaps, make people less inclined to commit severe acts again or at least be more sensitive to the First Amendment rights of others," Wheeler said.
DOC has earned three consecutive Muzzles, once in 2010 for restricting access to religious spoken-word CDs and again in 2011 for denying prisoners' access to "The Jailhouse Lawyer's Handbook," a work detailing the legal rights of prisoners.
The DOC was sued in 2011 for not allowing an inmate access to spoken-word CDs featuring the works of Dylan Thomas, read by Thomas. The agency lost in court.
"We hope we don't have to award them another Muzzle next year," Wheeler said, "but we are fully following Ben Franklin's advice when he said that he who lives upon hope will die fasting."
Located in Albemarle County, the center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution engaged in education, research and intervention on behalf of individual rights of free expression.
Other Muzzles were given to:
- The Norfolk Police Department, for arresting and prosecuting a man for filming an on-duty police officer sitting in his car, claiming the man had to have the officer's permission. Courts recently decided the police may be filmed while performing their duties in public places.
- The Florida legislature and Florida Gov. Rick Scott for passing the "Firearm Owners' Privacy Act" restricting advice Florida physicians may give to their patients regarding guns and gun safety.
- The U.S. State Department for rescinding its invitation to a Palestinian cartoonist to participate in a conference focusing on free speech, citing some of his cartoons as anti-Semitic.
- Mayor Wayne Garner of Carrollton, Ga., for "unilaterally canceling a previously approved community theater production of 'The Rocky Horror Show' at a publicly owned venue." The center noted that the show was in rehearsal when a cast member posted a video clip on his personal Facebook page. "When the mayor saw the clip, he canceled the already advertised production," center officials said.
- The Salem, Mo., Public Library Board of Trustees, for using filtering software on library computers that classified many non-mainstream religious websites as "occult" or "criminal" and blocked access.
- Lake of the Ozarks Camdenton R-III School District in Missouri, for using filtering software. This time the filters blocked access to many websites advocating equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people while comparable anti-gay websites were not blocked.
- The administration of Catawba Valley Community College in North Carolina, for banning a student from campus after he criticized on his Facebook page the school's partnership with Higher One Financial Services and the aggressive marketing of a college-branded debit MasterCard.
- Sam Houston State University (Texas) professor Joe Kirk and the University Police Department, for their actions in restricting speech on a temporary campus "free speech wall." Kirk cut a four-letter "F-word" from the wall with a box cutter. The word was used to criticize President Barack Obama. The university police then threatened to arrest any students who attempted to write the offending word again. "They told the students that cursing was OK until someone gets offended," Wheeler said.
Wheeler said the Muzzle awards, given out just before Thomas Jefferson's birthday, are designed to bring attention to attempts to quash Americans' free speech and to incite the public to defend its rights.