Free speech group ‘honors’ attempts to censor

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(AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Idaho regulators who banned the sale of Five Wives Vodka out of fear of offending tee-totaling Mormons and a Missouri legislator who wanted to make it a felony to even propose gun control legislation are among the 2013 winners of the annual anti-censorship “Jefferson Muzzles.”

The dubious honors announced Thursday also include an Oklahoma school board that ordered a 5-year-old to turn his T-shirt inside-out because it featured the logo of an out-of-state university and a congressman who refused a request by a celebrated West Virginia activist to show a 5-year-old girl bathing in waters fouled by mountaintop removal mining.

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression released its 22nd list of the always egregious, occasionally frightening and often amusing affronts to free speech, winnowing the winners from hundreds of nominations.

Josh Wheeler, director of the Charlottesville center, said this year’s edition was distinctive for its diversity. “People from all over the political spectrum are willing to censor,” he said Wednesday.

The awards are announced each year on 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.

Education and politics captured the majority of this year’s Muzzles. They included both major political parties for ignoring evenly divided voice votes at their national conventions, each time allowing party leaders to proclaim the outcome they had sought.

At the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., the vote involved restoring references to God and the designation of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. They were restored, despite several voice votes showing delegates evenly divided, even though a two-thirds majority was required.

The Republican National Convention, held in Tampa, Fla., earned its Muzzle for adopting rules proposed by the campaign of eventual nominee Mitt Romney that would tilt future conventions to establishment nominees. It was opposed by many delegates, including Ron Paul supporters, but the new rules were declared passed by House Speaker John Boehner despite a convention floor that appeared to be divided.

The issue of gay marriage earned Muzzles for mayors of the three of three major U.S. cities — Boston, Chicago and San Francisco — after they attempted to block the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain from expanding in their cities because company president Dan Cathy’s publicly said marriage should be defined as a union of a man and a woman.

Conversely, a Maryland legislator asked the Baltimore Ravens’ owner to silence a player who was an outspoken advocate of gay marriage.

Missouri state Rep. Mike Leara was taken to task for proposing a bill that would have made it a class D felony for his colleagues to simply propose restrictions on “the right of an individual to bear arms.” Leara said he didn’t expect the legislation to go anywhere, but to serve as “a statement in defense of the Second Amendment rights of all Missourians.”

The Oklahoma City kindergarten student who wore a University of Michigan T-shirt to class was instructed by his principal to go behind a tree on the playground and turn his shirt inside-out. The policy, intended as an anti-gang measure, is under review because of the public outcry.

The Annville-Cleona school board in Pennsylvania got its Muzzle for voting to remove the children’s book “The Dirty Cowboy” from the elementary school library after the parents of a student complained it would send the message that “looking at nudity is okay and not wrong.” The story involves a cowboy who takes his annual bath at a river. His modesty is protected by illustrations, such as a flock of birds.

While schools are fertile ground for the Muzzles, Wheeler said he frets the most about targeting educators because they strive to do their best while serving so many constituencies.

“At the same time, we don’t feel we can completely let them off the hook if they really do something, even with the best intentions, that is teaching the wrong lesson to students or their families,” he said.

The Muzzle related to the interrogation of West Virginia activist Maria Gunnoe went to Rep. Doug Lamborn, who chaired the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. A member of the Colorado Republican’s staff deemed the photograph offensive. Lamborn denied ever seeing the photo. Gunnoe was later interrogated by Capitol Police on suspicion she might be in possession of child pornography. No charges were filed, nor apologies offered.

Gunnoe said the objection “wasn’t because the little girl didn’t have a shirt on. It was because she was bathing in mine waste.”

After having a hand in the Muzzles since the ’90s, Wheeler said he has seen no easing up on attempts to censor, “which is a little bit sad. On the other hand, I think it speaks to why we think the Muzzles are more than just an amusing, tongue-in-cheek way to make fun of people who censor in that, hopefully, they challenge people’s complacency.”

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