The 2013 Muzzle Awards 

The worst crimes against the First Amendment

Since 1992, The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has celebrated the birth and ideals of its namesake by calling attention to those who in the past year forgot or disregarded Jefferson's admonition that freedom of speech "cannot be limited without being lost."

The annual Muzzles are awarded on the anniversary of Jefferson's birthday as a means to 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.

Because the importance and value of free expression extend far beyond the First Amendment's limit on government censorship, acts of private censorship are not spared consideration for the dubious honor of receiving a Muzzle.

Unfortunately, each year the finalists for the Muzzles have emerged from an alarmingly large group of candidates. For each recipient, a dozen could have been substituted. Further, an examination of Muzzle recipients reveals that the disregard of First Amendment principles is not the byproduct of a particular political outlook but rather that threats to free expression come from all over the political spectrum.

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1. The Annville-Cleona School Board

The Dirty Cowboy is an illustrated children's book that tells the tale of a cowboy who goes down to a river for his annual bath, undresses, and instructs his dog to watch his clothes while he bathes. When he emerges from the river the cowboy smells so clean that his dog doesn't recognize him and won't let him have his clothes back. The remainder of the book chronicles the cowboy's travails as he seeks to reclaim his clothes, getting dirtier in the process. Although the cowboy is depicted without his clothes, the drawings never actually show him nude. The whimsical illustrations cleverly block the cowboy's "private parts" with various images including a boot, a flock of birds, a frog and more. Written by Amy Timberlake and illustrated by Adam Rex, The Dirty Cowboy has received numerous awards and accolades, including the Parent's Choice Gold Medal, the Golden Kite Award and the International Reading Association Notable Book award.

Not everyone is a fan of the book, however. In spring 2012, the parents of a student in Pennsylvania's Annville-Cleona school district objected to the book being in the elementary school library for fear it would teach children that "looking at nudity is okay and not wrong" and that "pornography is okay too." Acting on their objection, the Annville-Cleona School Board deemed the book inappropriate for young children and voted to remove The Dirty Cowboy from the elementary school library. The removal received national media attention. The American Library Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship and an online petition signed by more than 300 local parents and taxpayers urged the board to reconsider its action.

Although the complaining parents have every right to express their opinion, to equate a children's book containing no sexual or salacious content with "pornography" demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the term. And while many people do find depictions of nudity objectionable, they should not have the right to impose that view on others in the community—particularly when, as here, there is not a single depiction of nudity! Ultimately, what the school board found to be inappropriate for young children was nothing more than the suggestion that people typically don't wear any clothing while taking a bath.

School administrators and board members have incredibly difficult jobs due in part to the variety of constituencies they serve. Rarely, if ever, will their decisions or actions receive universal support. But the Annville-Cleona School Board serves a broader constituency than just those who agree with its decisions. As stated by the American Library Association in a letter to the school board on this matter, "the school library has a responsibility to meet the needs of everyone in the school community—not just the most vocal, the most powerful, or even the majority. If a parent thinks a particular book is not suitable for their child, they should guide their children to other books."

In taking the extreme step of removing the book from the library, the Annville-Cleona School Board ignored the views of many in the community that they serve, the many awards the book has received, and the opinions of the American Library Association and other professional organizations. In so doing, the board essentially declared that there is only one "reasonable" view on the book's appropriateness for children.

click to enlarge A school board in Pennsylvania removed this book—about a cowboy who loses his clothes—from an elementary library when parents complained it would teach children that “pornography is okay too.”
  • A school board in Pennsylvania removed this book—about a cowboy who loses his clothes—from an elementary library when parents complained it would teach children that “pornography is okay too.”

2. Prague High School Principal David Smith

Prague, Okla., is a quiet town of fewer than 2,200 people, located about an hour east of Oklahoma City. The school district proudly calls itself "the home of the Red Devils," a fact evidenced by the district's official school logos: a snarling Satan for the high school and a mischievous, demonic imp for the middle and elementary schools. Of all the things that might raise eyebrows in such a Hades-happy hamlet, saying "hell" would figure to be pretty low on the list. Yet, that's exactly what happened when the high school's valedictorian, Kaitlin Nootbaar, uttered that word in her commencement speech.

Nootbaar was describing to her fellow classmates and their guests how she had initially wanted to be a nurse, then a veterinarian, but when asked now, could only reply: "How the hell should I know? I've changed my mind so many times."

Principal Smith, who had previously approved an advance copy of Nootbaar's speech that used "heck" instead of "hell," was so angered by the switch that when the straight-A student stopped by to pick up her diploma last August, he refused to release it to her until she wrote a formal letter of apology to him, the school board and all of her teachers. Kaitlin and her parents felt that she had done nothing deserving of an apology and complained to the school board. Superintendant Rick Martin sided with Smith, stating that "the high school principal requested a private apology for her transgression before releasing her diploma. His request was both reasonable and in keeping with established federal case law interpreting the First Amendment."

Martin's assessment of constitutional law is debatable. But even if he were correct, the withholding of Nootbaar's diploma would still be deserving of a Muzzle. It is difficult to see how the use of the word "hell" in a speech at this school—where the mascot is El Diablo himself and the students are known as the Red Devils—could be called inappropriate. Nootbaar's only sin was departing from her approved script. If Smith felt that such a minor transgression nevertheless warranted some sort of reprimand, he could have done so by any number of less drastic means.

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