FEMA, FCC win dubious Muzzle Awards, cited for free-speech violations
RICHMOND, Va. -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which staged a fake news conference, was among the "winners" Tuesday of the 2008 Jefferson Muzzle Awards, given by a free-speech group for egregious First Amendment violations.
FEMA made the list, compiled by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, for staging the news conference during the California wildfires. Agency employees posed as journalists and asked officials soft questions while real reporters got little notice of the news conference and were barred from asking questions because the conference call was "listen only."
Center director Bob O'Neil said the bogus event was an example of fake speech substituting for free speech.
"We haven't [previously] had anything that fell into the falsification or disinformation category; this is a first," O'Neil said in a telephone interview.
The police department in Scranton, Pa., was cited for filing criminal charges against Dawn Herb, who screamed a string of profanities when a toilet in her home overflowed. Herb's neighbor, an off-duty officer, told her to tone it down. After she continued, she was charged with disorderly conduct. A judge acquitted Herb in December, saying that though her comments might be considered vulgar, she had the First Amendment right to express herself.
The Federal Communications Commission got a Lifetime Muzzle for having four citations and for being in the running nearly each year of the awards' 17-year history. The commission has been nominated mostly over how it has defined broadcast indecency following situations that included U2 frontman Bono's use of the "F-word" at a 2003 awards show and Janet Jackson's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction" in 2004.
A Muzzle also went to Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., for introducing a bill that would require the FCC to maintain a policy that would make broadcasting a single word or image indecent, and therefore punishable.
CBS Radio and MSNBC were cited for taking radio host Don Imus off the air after he made racist and sexist comments about Rutgers University's women's basketball team. The networks allowed public criticism to control their actions, O'Neil said, despite the fact that they could've used broadcast-delay technology to prevent the comments from being heard.
The Charlottesville center awards the Muzzles annually to mark the April 13 birthday of its namesake, the third president and free-speech advocate.
Others cited: Lancaster County, Neb., District Judge Jeffre Cheuvront for barring witnesses from using the terms "rape," "victim," "assailant," and "sexual assault kit" in a sexual assault trial; the New York Department of Motor Vehicles for recalling a vanity license plate after deeming its "GETOSAMA" message offensive; the managing board of The Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia's student newspaper, for firing a cartoonist because of public criticism of a strip called "Ethiopian Food Fight" -- despite the fact that the editors approved the cartoon before it was published.