Thomas Jefferson’s birthday is on Sunday, and that means it’s time for the “Jefferson Muzzle” awards, granted by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. The TJ Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Charlottesville, Virginia, dedicated to protecting free speech, and every year it highlights especially egregious examples of government censorship. Full disclosure: I had the pleasure of working for the TJ Center before I came to FIRE, and reviewing nominees for the Muzzle awards ranks up at the top—with reading Unlearning Liberty—of experiences that most reaffirmed my career choice.
Torch readers won’t be surprised to see a few FIRE cases on this year’s list of “winners.” The TJ Center recognized the Kansas Board of Regents for its new policy on the “improper use of social media” by faculty members, which FIRE and other free speech advocates have criticized as putting academic freedom and free speech at risk. As the TJ Center notes, the Board has created a workgroup to review the policy (and FIRE gave the workgroup’s draft a positive review on The Torch). But the Board refused to suspend its current, overbroad and vague policy during review, leaving faculty at Kansas’ public colleges and universities with insufficient guidance as to what they may or may not be able to say on social media.
The TJ Center also awarded a Muzzle to Modesto Junior College (MJC) for stopping student Robert Van Tuinen from handing out copies of the Constitution last Constitution Day. As shown on a video recorded by Van Tuinen, a security officer and an administrative specialist told Van Tuinen that he could hand out literature only in the college’s tiny “free speech area” and only after scheduling his activities through the Student Development office. Thankfully, Van Tuinen came to FIRE for help and, represented by the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine, filed a federal lawsuit against MJC. In March, the parties settled the case, and MJC agreed to pay $50,000 and to allow free expression in all “areas generally available to students and the community.”
Of course, lots of state actors outside the realm of higher education commit serious First Amendment violations as well. The seven other honorees include crowd favorites like the National Security Agency, which tried to censor T-shirts that read, “The NSA: The only part of the government that actually listens.”
Read the full list of winners on the TJ Center’s website!
Schools: Modesto Junior College University of Kansas Cases: Kansas Board of Regents Approves Vague and Overbroad Social Media Policy University of Kansas: Anti-NRA Tweet Results in Professor’s Suspension Modesto Junior College: Students Barred from Distributing Constitutions on Constitution Day