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Jefferson Center gives nine "Jefferson Muzzle" awards

NSA, two high schools among "winners"

The Charlottesville-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression announced nine recipients for the 2014 Jefferson Muzzle awards. The awards, according to the group’s website, “draw national attention to abridgments of free speech and press and, at the same time, foster an appreciation for those tenets of the First Amendment.”

This year’s “winners” included the U.S. Department of Justice, the White House Press Office, the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security, the North Carolina General Assembly Police, the Kansas Board of Regents, Modesto Junior College, the Tennessee State Legislature, Wharton High School Principal Brad Woods and Pemberton Township High School Principal Ida Smith.

Center Director John Wheeler, who took over as director in 2011 when former University President Robert O’Neil resigned from the position, said the Muzzles remind citizens to be vigilant in protecting First Amendment rights.

“Throughout the year we receive nominations from the general public, but we also call newspapers and that can give us 200-300 possible nominees,” Wheeler said. “At the end of the year we review them to narrow it down and then we get it to about 25 that we then submit to our board of trustees to make the final decisions.”

Wheeler said First Amendment violations occur every day at the state and local levels.

“We consider the most aggressive or ridiculous forms of free speech,” Wheeler said. “The idea behind the Muzzles is to impress upon the general public that just because we have a First Amendment does not mean that we do not have threats against our free speech.”

The awards are given out to those who fight against journalists and speakers who want to speak freely on adverse topics and opinions. This is why the U.S. Department of Justice tops the 2014 list, for subpoenaing journalists and individuals who have leaked classified information.

Smith, the New Jersey high school principal, was also “honored” for her censorship of student publications.

Wheeler said the Center uses the ironic awards to promote the right of media publications to report and speak freely.

“We send the recipients a Jefferson Muzzle’s T-shirt with an image of Jefferson with a black bar across his mouth,” Wheeler said.