RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The White House and the federal government have won the dubious honor of a “Jefferson Muzzle” for snooping on the news media and limiting access.
The censorship-shaming awards announced Wednesday by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression are intended to draw a harsh light on people and institutions that engage in the most egregious affronts to the First Amendment.
Other recipients included the governing board of Kansas’ public universities. A new board policy says faculty members who use social media to disrupt “harmony among co-workers” or make comments deemed “contrary to the best interest of the university” can be fired. The policy was a reaction to a faculty member’s statements on his personal Twitter.
The awards are announced each year on or near the April 13 birthday of Jefferson, a free-speech advocate and the nation’s third president. Winners get a T-shirt with Jefferson’s likeness and a black rectangle over his mouth.
Josh Wheeler, director of the Charlottesville center, said in the Muzzles’ 23-year history, he can’t remember a time in which free press issues dominated the awards.
“From the White House to the statehouse, from universities to high schools, members of the press have had to defend against a variety of challenges, some never seen before,” Wheeler said in a statement.
The White House collected a Muzzle for limiting photographers’ access at events deemed private. The presidents of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and The Associated Press have urged their members to stop using White House handout photos and video, saying they amount to propaganda.
The Obama administration has said the handouts allow the public greater access to the inner workings of the administration.
The U.S. Justice Department was singled out for seizing telephone records of AP reporters and editors and for falsely labeling a Fox News reporter a criminal co-conspirator to obtain a search warrant for his phone records and emails.
The Justice Department announced in February it was revising its rules for obtaining records from the media in leak investigations to give news organizations an opportunity to challenge any subpoenas or search warrants in federal court.
The National Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security earned a Muzzle for going after a retail website that sold T-shirts and products poking fun at government, including one product that featured a variation on the NSA seal and the statement, “The NSA: The only part of government that actually listens.”
Muzzles were also awarded to:
— North Carolina General Assembly police for arresting a Charlotte Observer reporter who was covering a protest at the Capitol. Despite wearing a press ID and identifying himself as a reporter, he was handcuffed and charged with trespassing.
— The Tennessee General Assembly for adopting an “ag-gag” bill aimed at animal rights activists who go undercover to document abuse of livestock. Ultimately vetoed, the bill would have criminalized unauthorized recordings inside agricultural operations.
— Modesto Junior College in California for telling a student on Constitution Day his free distribution of the Constitution could only be done on one designated spot on campus, and only if he scheduled days in advance.
— The principal of Wharton High School in Tampa, Fla., for shutting off the microphone during the school’s salutatorian’s graduation speech, fearing he was going to depart from his preapproved text. The student was escorted away by sheriff’s deputies.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Speech: http://tjcenter.org