Free-speech group flags First Amendment violations

Apr 12, 2012, 7:47 PM

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Enacting a law that bars doctors from discussing gun safety with their patients. Slicing the “f-word” from a designated free-speech wall. Blocking websites about non-mainstream religions and gay-advocacy groups from public computers.

Those were some of the dubious achievements that the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression cited Thursday in announcing its “Muzzle” awards. The Charlottesville center bestows the Muzzles annually to mark the April 13 birthday of its namesake, a free-speech advocate and the nation’s third president.

Center director Josh Wheeler says several of the 2012 winners earned their Muzzles for engaging in viewpoint censorship, which the First Amendment prohibits.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the state’s Legislature won its Muzzle for adopting a National Rifle Association-backed law that largely prohibits physicians from asking patients about firearms in their homes or discussing gun safety. In response to a challenge by physicians’ groups and gun-control advocates, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction last fall blocking enforcement of the law, ruling that it infringed on free speech in the context of a doctor-patient relationship.

“This isn’t about gun ownership, it’s about speech about guns,” Wheeler said. “They’re stepping beyond their role when they try to limit what can be said about guns or gun safety.”

The U.S. State Department won a Muzzle for disinviting a Palestinian political cartoonist from a government-sponsored conference that was to highlight, ironically enough, the importance of free speech and freedom of the press. Weeks before the program, State Department officials informed Majed Badra that he was no longer welcome after they found what they regarded as anti-Semitic cartoons on his website.

“That’s a disturbing message sent to the rest of the world, that the U.S. just gives lip service to its commitment to free speech,” Wheeler said. “There absolutely was no safety issue at all. It was a matter of not wanting to include someone whom allies or friends of the U.S. might find objectionable.”

A professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas was cited for cutting the “f-word” from a university-approved “free-speech wall,” on which students were invited to express themselves by writing on the wall’s parchment paper. Joe Kirk asked the campus groups that sponsored the wall to remove the phrase “(f-word) Obama,” and when they refused, Kirk excised the offending word with a box cutter, leaving intact about 100 other “f-words” on the wall.

After the students complained about Kirk’s vandalism, campus police demanded that student organizers remove all the “f-words” or face disorderly-conduct charges for using profanity. The students tore down the wall instead.

Two Missouri groups won Muzzles for blocking websites from a public library and public schools.

The Salem Public Library Board of Trustees employed software that blocked Internet sites that pertained to “the occult,” which a library patron learned included sites about Wiccan and Native American spiritual practices _ along with sites about yoga, meditation and astrology. However, the filters didn’t block mainstream religious sites’ viewpoints on those same topics, including the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Paganism.

The Lake of the Ozarks Camdenton R-III School District won a Muzzle for blocking websites addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues _ unless they condemned homosexuality on religious grounds. It had fought a lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union and advocacy groups that challenged the filtering policy, but agreed to a settlement last month.

The Virginia Department of Corrections won a Muzzle for the third straight year, this time for banning prisoners from receiving non-religious, spoken-word compact discs. Owen North wanted to send inmate Shawn Goode an 11-CD boxed set of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas reading his own works, as well as that of Shakespeare and other writers. Corrections officials denied North’s request, saying that they lacked the staffing to properly screen such materials to determine whether they’d been tampered with or contained inappropriate material.

North sued the agency, challenging the ban on secular spoken-word recordings. A federal judge overturned the policy, concluding that the unproven rationale behind it failed to justify “the unauthorized burdening of constitutional rights.”

Other winners include Carrollton, Ga., Mayor Wayne Garner for unilaterally canceling a previously approved community production of “The Rocky Horror Show;” the Norfolk, Va., Police Department for arresting a man for videotaping an on-duty police officer sitting in his car (a judge later dismissed the charges); and the administration of Catawba Valley Community College in North Carolina for banning a student from campus after he posted critical remarks on Facebook about the school’s partnership with a credit-card company and the aggressive marketing of a college-branded debit card.



Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression:


Zinie Chen Sampson can be reached on Twitter:

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Free-speech group flags First Amendment violations