Peoria mayor wins Muzzles award for raid stemming from Twitter account

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RICHMOND, Va. — In a year with many high-profile attacks on free speech, the people who award the anti-censorship Jefferson Muzzles strived to find lesser-known offenders:

  • A Pennsylvania prosecutor who went after a teenager who posted a photo of his crotch near a religious statue.
  • An Illinois university that yanked a job offer from a prospective professor because of what were deemed his politically offensive comments on social media.
  • An Alabama judge who jailed a blogger for five months for refusing to remove what the judge called defamatory comments on his website.

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Monday released its annual rogue’s gallery of those who sought to snuff speech over the past year. The center said many violent attempts to still speech happened on the global stage, including the bloody attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris and violent threats against the opening of the movie parody “The Interview.”

But the Muzzles are limited to U.S. offenders against speech guaranteed by the Constitution.

“Just because we have a First Amendment does not mean we don’t have attempts at censorship in this country, and it’s up to all of us to be vigilant to fight those attempts at censorship,” said center director Josh Wheeler. “We hope the Muzzle awards help to do that.”

For 24 years, the center has pilloried egregious affronts to free speech. The awards are announced in April, the birth month of Jefferson, the nation’s third president and pioneering free speech advocate.

In the latest crop of Muzzles, the use of social media clearly helped ensnare many whose speech was silenced or punished.

“It definitely seems that online speech is playing a much larger role in censorship across the country and in the selection of our Muzzle awards,” Wheeler said.

The 2015 Muzzles, with the offending actions provided by the Jefferson Center, are going to:

  • New Jersey’s Bergen Community College for suspending a professor for eight days and ordering him to undergo a psychiatric exam. The punitive actions came after he shared on social media a photo of his daughter, 7, wearing a T-shirt from the HBO series “Game of Thrones” that read, “I will take what is mine with fire and blood.”
  • The Indiana Department of Corrections for revoking a woman’s access to a service that allows prisoners and their relatives to exchange emails and videos. The offense: she reposted a video on social media asking people to attend her brother’s court hearing.
  • Asnuntuck Community College officials who disciplined a student when he spoke to Gov. Dannel Malloy on gun legislation on the Enfield, Connecticut, campus. The student was suspended for failing to “demonstrate good citizenship,” among other reasons. The college took down its Facebook page to blunt critics of its actions.
  • Bedford County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney Bill Higgins for charging a boy, 14, with “desecration of a venerated object” after he put an image on Facebook of his clothed crotch near the mouth of a statue of Jesus. The boy agreed to a six-month ban on social media, among other punishments, to avoid possible incarceration.
  • Peoria, Illinois, Mayor Jim Ardis for ordering a raid on the home of a man responsible for a Twitter parody account aimed at him. The mayor pressed for police action even though his chief said the parody did not violate any law. The creator of the parody was never arrested.
  • The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for withdrawing an offer of employment to a former Virginia Tech professor because he tweeted anti-Israeli sentiments. The chancellor said the action was based on the tone of his tweets, not his politics.
  • The Mora County, New Mexico, Board of Commissioners for approving an ordinance stripping oil and gas extraction companies of their free-speech rights. It was part of an effort to ban energy development. A court overturned the ordinance.
  • An Alabama judge who jailed a judicial watchdog blogger when the critic refused to remove a claim involving the son of a former governor.

Winners get a T-shirt with Jefferson’s likeness and a black rectangle over his mouth.

STEVE SZKOTAK, Associated Press

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