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What would Thomas Jefferson say?

For the third year in a row, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has singled out the Bush administration’s post-9/11 repression in awarding its annual Jefferson Muzzles. This year’s winners — announced last week — include the Department of Defense and the Secret Service.

The Defense Department earned its Muzzle for announcing that it would impose a sweeping gag order on any civilian lawyer who seeks to represent someone accused of being an "enemy combatant," and who is being tried by a military tribunal. The Secret Service was cited for overzealousness, ranging from an investigation of Los Angeles Times cartoonist Michael Ramirez (in a drawing last July, Ramirez depicted President Bush at the wrong end of a gun; it wasn’t as bad as it sounds) to the harassment and segregation of protesters who try to get near the president.

In last year’s awards, the Jefferson Center whacked Attorney General John Ashcroft for his monomaniacal enforcement of the Patriot Act and persecution of foreigners (see "Free Speech," This Just In, April 25, 2003). And in 2002, the center criticized Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for limiting media coverage of the war in Afghanistan.

This is the 13th year that the center, affiliated with the University of Virginia, has been awarding its Jefferson Muzzles. (Since 1998, the Phoenix has been publishing its own Muzzle Awards, which identify enemies of free speech and civil liberties in Greater Boston and New England.) But Josh Wheeler, an attorney who is the Jefferson Center’s associate director, says both the purpose and the tone have shifted since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

"I think we’re going to look back at this period of history as a time when our personal liberties were infringed," he says. "That makes them, I guess, more serious. They’ve always been serious, but now they’re less amusing than they had been in the past."

Not that there aren’t a few laughs to be had among this year’s 13 winners. Wheeler’s favorite: the police of Pilot Point, Texas, who are tormenting the owner of an antiques store and art gallery named Wes Miller for putting up a mural on the side of his store depicting the hand of God pointing at Eve. Trouble is, Eve, not having yet been apprised of her nudity by the Almighty, had forgotten to wear a bra. Now Miller faces prosecution for displaying art that the local police say could be "harmful to minors." Says Wheeler, "It’s both funny and disturbing at the same time."

Other winners include federal judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, for excluding the press from jury selection in the Martha Stewart trial; CBS, for canceling a docudrama on Ronald and Nancy Reagan after the Republican National Committee complained, and for refusing to air an ad by MoveOn.org during the Super Bowl that criticized President Bush; and school boards for not letting kids wear T-shirts sympathetic to the right (a National Rifle Association shirt that unironically proclaimed SHOOTING SPORTS CAMP) and left (a photo of Bush labeled INTERNATIONAL TERRORIST).

Wheeler estimates that the center started with 300 to 400 nominees. Those were whittled down to about 50 before being presented to the board of trustees, which made the final selections.

For more information on the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and its annual Jefferson Muzzles, visit its Web site at www.tjcenter.org.

Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 2004
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