White House 'awarded' for press freedom

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 10, 2014 

The White House in Washington D.C. taken by McClatchy staffer.

TISH WELLS — McClatchy Washington Bureau

The White House -- which has been pilloried by the press corps for limiting access to President Barack Obama -- is getting a dubious award for those efforts: a Jefferson Muzzle.

Handed out by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, the Muzzles -- now in their 23rd year -- are bestowed by the center on individuals and institutions it says are “responsible for some of the more egregious or ridiculous affronts to First Amendment principles.”

This past year was remarkable for freedom of the press issues, said Josh Wheeler, director of the center.

“From the White House to the state house, from universities to high schools, members of the press have had to defend against a variety of challenges, some never seen before,” he said. The awards include a number of less well-known acts of censorship, Wheeler said, “because such an indictment challenges the assumption held by many that, because of the First Amendment, attempts at censorship are few in the United States.”

The Muzzles -- in no particular order:

* The U.S. Department of Justice: “In two unrelated investigations into the identities of the confidential sources behind several news stories, the DOJ secretly seized dozens of phone records of the Associated Press and falsely labeled Fox News reporter James Rosen a criminal “co-conspirator” in order to obtain a search warrant for the reporter’s phone records and emails.”

* The White House Press Office: “While previous administrations have routinely granted photographers in the White House press corps liberal access to the President, the Obama administration press office has systematically bypassed the media by only releasing official photographs and videos at the expense of independent journalistic access. In response, 38 of the nation’s largest and most respected media organizations delivered a letter to the White House protesting the diminished access and asserting that the resulting images are little more than sanitized propaganda.”

* The National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security: “For causing an online retailer to remove from its website a Minnesota man’s products satirizing various government entities on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and other items.Zazzle.com pulled the items from its marketplace after receiving cease and desist letters from the NSA and Homeland Security. Among the items removed were products featuring a variation of the NSA seal along with the statement “The NSA: The only part of government that actually listens.”

* The North Carolina General Assembly Police: “For arresting Charlotte Observer reporter Tim Funk as he was covering a protest inside the state capitol. Officers had ordered the crowd to disperse and warned of arrests for those that did not. Despite the fact that he was wearing press credentials, repeatedly identified himself to officers as a reporter, and was not standing among the protesters, Funk was arrested, handcuffed, and charged with trespassing and failure to disperse.”

* The Kansas Board of Regents: “Following controversial statements by a member of the University of Kansas faculty on his personal Twitter account, the Kansas Board of Regents (the governing board of the state’s public universities) adopted a social media policy that allows for the firing of a faculty member for using social media in such a way that “impairs…harmony among co-workers,” or that the university’s chief executive officer deems “contrary to the best interest of the university.”

* The Tennessee General Assembly: “For passing an “ag-gag” bill (“ag” for agriculture) designed to curtail the First Amendment rights of animal rights activists or any investigative reporters who go undercover at farms and other agricultural operations to document how livestock is turned into meat for human consumption. Although a number of other states have passed “ag-gag” laws, none so far have intruded on First Amendment rights to the extent of the Tennessee bill. In addition to criminalize the making of unauthorized recordings inside agricultural facilities, Tennessee’s ag-gag law required anyone possessing such a recoding to promptly turn it over to law enforcement or be subject to criminal charges. Although passed by the Tennessee General Assembly, Governor Haslam vetoed the bill because it was “constitutionally suspect.” Still, the bill’s sponsors have promised to reintroduce in at the next session of the General Assembly.”

* The administration at Modesto (Calif.) Junior College: “Campus police confronted Robert van Tuinen outside the student center as he handed out free copies of the Constitution to his fellow students on September 17—Constitution Day. Officers informed van Tuinen that school policy only permitted literature to be distributed within a tiny designated spot on campus, and only then if scheduled several days in advance.”

* Wharton High School (Florida) Principal Brad Woods: “When Wharton High School salutatorian Harold Shaw stumbled over a line halfway through his graduation speech, Principal Woods thought he was about to depart from the preapproved text and had the student’s microphone shut off. Not only was Shaw prevented from finishing his speech, he was then escorted from the venue by sheriff’s deputies and not allowed to receive his diploma with his classmates.”

Pemberton Township High School (New Jersey) Principal Ida Smith: “To fulfill an assignment for her journalism class, a Pemberton Township High School student wrote a column on smoking in the school bathrooms. The column was selected to appear in the school newspaper, but Principal Ida Smith deemed the article “inappropriate” and refused to allow it to be published. When another student wrote about the departure of the district’s athletic director, Smith herself removed text indicating that the athletic director declined to be interviewed and that no one had been hired to fill the position. Frustrated by what they saw as unwarranted interference by a school official, staffers proposed a story examining student expression rights and censorship issues. Smith then informed the students that they could not publish an article about censorship.”

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