2010 Muzzle Awards 

The year's 10 worst crimes against the First Amendment

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Texas State Legislature

Don't mess with Texas. Period. Don't even make a film about people who messed with Texans.

Movie producer Emilio Ferrari learned this lesson last May. Ferrari's feature film Waco depicts the fiery federal siege of the Branch Davidians' compound in 1993. Ferrari told a reporter that Waco was America's "biggest tragedy, after 9/11. And this was by Americans against Americans. I think people have a right to know what happened." Consequently, Ferrari and his staff conducted thousands of hours of research and consulted "every expert on Waco."

His team also wanted to spend $30 million filming in Texas, which should have made the state rejoice. In 2007, the state legislature created the Moving Image Industry Incentive Program to draw more media production to the Lone Star State. The 15 percent rebate on in-state production costs had helped mostly commercials and only one movie when Ferrari applied.

The program declines projects that advertise for the state government, are obscene, or made by students for course credit. Additionally, "The State of Texas is also not required to make payments to projects that include inappropriate content or content that portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion."

The Texas Film Commission ruled that Waco contained errors and could harm the state's image. "For denying motion picture production companies tax breaks if their proposed movies portray Texas or Texans in a negative fashion," the Texas State Legislature gets its second Muzzle.

The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board

Maybe you've never seen a woman bicycling naked, and if you live in Alabama, the chances that you will became much smaller last year. The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board banned sales of Cycles Gladiator wine because the label featured a nude nymph flying alongside a bicycle with winged pedals. The Alabamans thereby earned their Muzzle Award "for utilizing a paternalistic, highly subjective, and most likely unconstitutional approach to evaluating the advertising of alcoholic products."

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The banned label reproduces an 1895 advertisement by the French artist Georges Massias. The Gladiator was a line of bikes begun in 1891, and Massias' original prints have fetched $50,000 at auction. Reproductions can be bought as dorm room posters or on mugs, T-shirts and the Hahn Family Wines' bottles in all 49 nymph-friendlier states. The central California vineyard picked the image, according to its website, because it "captures the grace and uninhibited beauty of our hillside vineyards."

The board may have nothing against hillside vineyards, but it does have an aversion to uninhibited beauty. The board's attorney told the Associated Press that a "person posed in an immoral or sensuous manner" could not be used to advertise alcohol. The board banned another Hahn Family Wine after enlarging the label many times over revealed that a woman's nipple was visible through her gauzy garment.

Nonetheless, the TJ Center notes, "the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that works of artistic merit cannot be considered 'obscene' or 'harmful to minors' solely because they depict nudity. While people may disagree on this issue, the First Amendment does not allow the government to automatically take sides in the debate." Alabama's ban has boosted Cycles Gladiator sales and generated a new marketing slogan: "Taste what they're missing."

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department

Elvis impersonators beware: Keep the jumpsuit and sideburns in the casino or risk arrest on the Vegas Strip.

Impersonator Bill Jablonski told a Las Vegas reporter that tourists "come from all over the world looking for an Elvis." He hangs around the street to help them out. He doesn't want their money; he just thinks it's fun. He cries when he talks about the girl in a wheelchair who just wanted a picture with the faux Elvis. Is that too much to ask in Vegas?

Apparently, yes. Las Vegas police have regularly detained and threatened to arrest buskers and street performers for obstructing sidewalk traffic and operating without a license even though the courts say the cops aren't allowed to do that. Sidewalks, streets and other spaces are "public forums" for the free exchange of ideas. About the only thing cities can do to peaceful people in such places is to regulate aggressive panhandling.

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has sued on behalf of the performers, just as it previously sued on behalf of people who wanted to distribute flyers or preach along the Strip. An ACLU attorney said of the Las Vegas police, "They think each new type of expression they can suppress, and we have to go to court for each of those, and the results are always the same." The TJ Center also takes up the cause, granting a Muzzle "for continually harassing street performers in contravention of their established First Amendment rights."

Chicago Alderman James Balcer

The Governator may have found his match in the Alderman-ator. James Balcer, 11th Ward Alderman in central Chicago, heard about a private mural he didn't like so he called in the "graffiti blasters" to blow the offending art into uniform brown oblivion. "Yeah, I'm the alderman here," he told Chicago Public Radio. "I was told about it and I okayed it and I stand by it," he said of the mural's purging.

The mural in question depicted three police cameras, which resemble blue and white boxes and are ubiquitous atop poles throughout the city. One of the mural's cameras featured a trophy deer head, another a skull and the third a crucifix. Mural artist Gabriel Villa had been asked by the building's owner to paint the wall for a local arts festival. Villa said his intention with the mural was to get people talking.

Apparently, some people did just that. Balcer said he received a few complaints from residents and police as the mural neared completion. Balcer had the mural painted over in an early morning raid without consulting Villa or the building's owner, whose son was organizing the festival.

Balcer also erroneously claimed the mural needed a permit. He then called the mural "a threat to this community." Well, the Constitution doesn't give public officials the right to erase art wherever and whenever they want, so the TJ Center recognizes the Alderman "for failing to appreciate this constitutional principle and his city's own permit requirements."

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