Muzzle time: VA prisons receive life sentence in censorship

Of all the celebrations around town that commemorate the April 13 birthday of third president and Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the best– and worst– birthday gift comes from his namesake Center for the Protection of Free Expression, which annually bestows its Muzzle awards for the most egregious violations of free speech.

Sadly, there are always contenders, and Jefferson's hometown is not exempt. Both the Cavalier Daily and Albemarle High have been cited for muzzling free speech in the past.

This year's 21st Muzzle awards bring a blot of shame to Jefferson's home state with a lifetime achievement Muzzle. "The Virginia Department of Corrections is a repeat offender," says Thomas Jefferson Center executive director Josh Wheeler. "Three strikes and you're out."

The DOC also is only the third recipient of a lifetime achievement Muzzle, joining the ranks of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and the Federal Communications Commission.

The prison department's free-speech crime this year? The agency refused to allow an inmate a boxed CD set of poet Dylan Thomas reading his works, saying that only music or religious-spoken word CDs were allowed.

In a three-year streak, the Department of Corrections picked up its first Muzzle in 2010 for refusing to allow an inmate to receive religious spoken-word CDs. Last year, it banned a book called The Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook: How to Bring a Federal Lawsuit to Challenge Violations of Your Rights in Prison. In all three cases, the policies were overturned only after lawsuits were filed and courts ruled that First Amendment rights of inmates were being violated.

The Virginia Department of Corrections director Harold Clarke declined the Hook's request for comment. Spokesman Larry Traylor offered the following statement via email:

"The Virginia Department of Corrections works hard to achieve a balance between the safety and security of our facilities, employees, and offenders."

The Norfolk Police Department was the only other Virginia entity to gain recent Muzzle notoriety over an incident last April where two officers arrested activist Alton Robinson for filming them sitting in their car observing a march by the New Black Panther Party. One officer told Robinson he needed the officer's permission to film them; the other told Robinson he needed a permit, and then knocked the camera out of his hand and arrested him for disorderly conduct– a charge that was, of course, dismissed. The video is available on YouTube.

Library filtering is a trend this year, with a public and a school library each picking up a Muzzle. The Salem Public Library in Missouri blocked access to alternative spiritual websites on, for example, Wicca, but allowed access to the opinions of mainstream religions.

Missouri picked up another free speech black eye through its Camdenton R-III School District, which blocked searches of sites that were non-critical of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues, but allowed patrons to freely explore religious websites critical of LGBT people.

"Libraries are struggling with some sort of filter that's constitutionally permissible," says Wheeler, noting that these libraries had the opportunity to work with people to find a constitutionally acceptable way while still adhering to the Children's Internet Protection Act. "The reason they got a Muzzle in both cases was because they refused to do so," he says.

In Florida, legislators earned a Muzzle for telling doctors that any question about guns-in-the-home is verboten– something Wheeler finds "particularly egregious" since the law was sponsored by the supposedly small government-oriented National Rifle Association.

The two most ironic Muzzles? Disinviting someone from a free speech conference because of his speech, and editing a free speech wall, says Wheeler, whose organization funded Charlottesville's Free Speech Monument.

In the former, the U.S. State Department rescinded an invitation to a Palestinian cartoonist whose work expressed anti-Zionist sentiment. In the latter case, when Sam Houston University students erected a free speech wall, Professor Joe Kirk requested that "F*ck Obama" be removed but didn't object to the many other uses of the F-word on the paper-and-plywood wall. He used a box cutter to slice out the offending verb.

The students reported the vandalism to University Police, and an officer explained the First Amendment this way: "It's okay to curse until someone gets offended," says Wheeler with a laugh at that botched interpretation of U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

But of course, it's such misguided sentiments that keep the Muzzles going strong.

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We have one for next year already. Major League baseball and the Miami Marlins for suspending manager Ozzie Guillen for his remarks about Fidel Castro. Not that Guillen is very impressive with his backpedaling and apologizing.
It happens so often. Someone expresses an opinion, someone else takes offense, and the first party apologizes, says he/she really didn't mean it, that he is sorry people were offended yada yada yada.
It would be refreshing to see someone express a controversial opinion and stick to to it if that is how they really feel.
To paraphrase Voltaire- "I may be offended by what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
I remember back in the 60s when many on the Left admired Castro and the Cuban Revolution and expressed nothing but disdain for the "gusanos"(worms in Spanish , a term applied to them by Castro),the anti-Castro Cuban exiles in this country. Times do change, as Guillen found out.

And what century do we live in and where? Oh, thats right, the 7th most corrupt state in this nation, where else, where old fat white guys still rule.

@perspective, do you really think that corruption would not exist if we were rulled by "old fat black guys"?

@Hollowboy - we have one from the Commonwealth of Virginia - our own Governor McDonnell - and the order to remove peaceful protestors from the State Capitol.

@perspective - corruption is everywhere and I wouldn't say "old white guys" - but say the "good ol' boy mentality"...