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High school officials prominent on annual list of censors

By David L. Hudson Jr.
First Amendment scholar

Public school officials once again were featured prominently this year when the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression handed out its annual “Jefferson Muzzle” awards.

For the 16th consecutive year, the Charlottesville, Va.-based Thomas Jefferson Center “censured the censors” in an effort to bring public focus to the most egregious affronts to freedom of expression. Unveiled every year near the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, the Jefferson Muzzles are dubious distinctions given to those persons, groups or entities that showed a flagrant disregard for fundamental First Amendment principles during the previous year.

Reflecting a pattern over recent years, a good number of the winners (4 out of 14) came from the ranks of secondary school officials. They included:

  • The Charles A. Beard Memorial School Board in Knightstown, Ind., for expelling four sophomores who created a video that featured evil stuffed animals dispatched to kill a teacher. The video, created entirely off-campus, was not a true threat, according to law enforcement officials. In December 2006, a federal judge determined the punishment was excessive and likely violated of the First Amendment. The school district later settled the case by paying nearly $70,000 in damages and attorney fees.

  • The Watson Chapel School District in Watson Chapel, Ark., for suspending 20 students for wearing black armbands to protest what they felt was an onerous dress code. In October, a federal judge ruled the students had the right to wear the armbands. The officials flagrantly violated the principles of the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous student speech decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), which ruled that students had the right to wear black armbands to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

  • The Miami-Dade County Public School Board for banning A Visit to Cuba from school libraries after a parent complained it did not document adequately the harshness of life in the Fidel Castro-led community country. A federal district judge ruled in August 2006 that the books should stay on the shelves.

  • Three high schools — Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, Ind., Princeton High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Wyoming Valley West High School in Kingston, Pa. — for censoring student newspapers. The censored articles included an anti-illegal immigration editorial, an opinion piece criticizing the high school football team and a student poem about being caught without a hall pass.

“Over the years we have had a disproportionate and consistent number of transgressors who are secondary school administrators, superintendents and school board members,” said the center’s founder and free-speech expert Robert M. O’Neil. “Some of these — most notably the black armband prohibition in Arkansas — indicate that some free-speech lessons are learned very slowly.”

Secondary school officials weren’t the only Muzzle recipients. Several previous winners made repeat appearances this year, including the Bush administration for changing and censoring scientific studies, the Federal Communications Commission for substantially broadening the agency’s power and scope to regulate indecent broadcasting, and the U.S. Department of Defense for investigating citizens for peaceful and legal, anti-war protesting.

Four of the Muzzles went to federal officials, three went to state officials and two went to local officials. “This shows the familiar pattern that censorship occurs at all levels of government,” O’Neil said.


'Muzzle' awards spotlight school censorship

By David L. Hudson Jr. Thomas Jefferson Center bestows its 14th annual awards focusing on attempts to squelch free expression. 04.12.05

Bush, federal government lead pack of '06 'Muzzle' winners

By David L. Hudson Jr. Thomas Jefferson Center's 15th annual awards 'censure the censors' — highlighting actions inimical to free expression 04.11.06

Pa. teens to appeal decision barring poem from school magazine

'Episode of Pure Defiance' is about a teacher catching a student without a hall pass. 05.08.06

Cuba book must remain on school library shelves
Federal judge issues 89-page preliminary injunction in favor of ACLU after group challenges Miami-Dade school board's decision. 07.25.06

Ark. students allowed to resume dress-code protest
Federal judge issues temporary injunction barring administrators from punishing students for wearing black armbands in protest of new uniform policy. 10.22.06

Ohio parents object to principal's censorship of son's column
Couple argues that Evan Payne's piece criticizing football team shouldn't have been ripped out of Princeton High School's magazine. 01.09.07

Students expelled for teddy-bear video settle lawsuit
Indiana school district agrees to expunge expulsions from record, pay $69,000. 03.25.07

FCC wins Lifetime Muzzle award
Agency garners dubious distinction — only 2nd one given in awards' 17-year history — for 'inconsistent' application of broadcast-indecency guidelines. 04.09.08

8th Circuit: Students can wear armbands to protest dress code
Panel upholds ruling that found Arkansas school district violated First Amendment rights of students disciplined for protesting uniform policy. 09.03.08

Administrators again dominate list of 'Muzzle' award winners
By David L. Hudson Jr. Democratic, Republican parties also make repeat appearance on Thomas Jefferson Center's list of top censors of the year. 04.07.09

'Muzzle' awards feature unusually diverse group of winners
By David L. Hudson Jr. Public school officials, prison administrators are among those featured on this year's list of top censors; notably absent is President Obama's administration. 04.13.10

Ark. school district seeks high court review of armbands case
By David L. Hudson Jr. Watson Chapel officials argue Tinker standard doesn't apply to protest over school uniforms. 12.23.08

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