Friday, April 11, 2014
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Every year, on or around April 13th, Thomas Jefferson's birthday, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has celebrated by issuing Jefferson Muzzles. These are booby prizes, awarded to individuals and institutions who act against Mr. Jefferson's admonition that freedom of speech, quote, “cannot be limited without being lost.” This year's [CHUCKLES] winners range from many federal agencies to police departments, to schools. No institution is too large or too small to avoid the Muzzle.
Josh Wheeler, who directs the Center, says the first Muzzle went to the Department of Justice for the overzealous pursuit of leakers.
JOSH WHEELER: In one incident, they subpoenaed the phone records of several Associated Press offices and journalists, without informing the AP that they were planning to do this. The only time they’re really supposed to do that, without giving warning, is when there’s a danger that those records could be destroyed. Well, there’s absolutely no danger of that here. The records were held by Verizon. But more troubling was –
BOB GARFIELD: James Rosen.
JOSH WHEELER: Right, James Rosen, exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: A reporter for Fox News was named as a co-conspirator in a criminal case.
JOSH WHEELER: Yet, a subpoena of someone’s emails to actually read the content, they had to get a search warrant. And in order to get a search warrant there is a requirement that the person that they were seeking the information from had to be someone who was under investigation for criminal activity. That’s a sad day for freedom of the press, when a reporter can be considered a criminal for simply doing their job.
BOB GARFIELD: One way to muzzle journalism is ex post facto, such as in the Rosen case. But journalism can also be stymied at its source. Tell me about the White House photographers.
JOSH WHEELER: The Obama White House policy has been not to give reporters access to presidential meetings and private affairs, but instead give them official photographs that staff photographers take. And the news organizations wrote a combined letter, saying, this is ridiculous. You're deciding what images we get to use and planning on us to distribute those for you. This is in contrast to what older presidential administrations have done. And the Obama administration justifies it by saying they give out more photographs than any administration has in the past. Well, it is a different thing from journalists taking the photographs.
BOB GARFIELD: The Federal government had a year like Avatar, practically a sweep. You gave Muzzles to other agencies, as well, the National Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. Incredibly, some smaller governmental bodies managed to break through. Tell me about the North Carolina General Assembly, please.
JOSH WHEELER: Sure. A reporter for the Charlotte Observer was covering what had become a weekly protest of the General Assembly of North Carolina. These protests were in response to some budget cuts that they felt unfairly targeted programs for the poor. The reporter for the Charlotte Observer was interviewing the protesters. The police said, we’re going to start arresting people to disperse, and the reporter, of course, stayed there to cover the story, And even though he had his press credentials clearly out and he clearly identified himself, the police handcuffed him and held him in a holding cell for several hours before he was able to be released. Talk about a chilling effect! If reporters are gonna start to be arrested for covering the news then we’re in very sad shape.
BOB GARFIELD: We have seen some high-profile cases of people's mic being cut off. Kill the mic when you don’t like what you’re hearing. Bill O’Reilly has famously done it with guests who disgust him. But you gave a muzzle to someone - in education, for cutting off debate.
JOSH WHEELER: It was a high school graduation ceremony in Tampa, Florida, in which the salutatorian was giving his speech. Well, apparently this young man had been critical of the high school, most notably about the condition of the high school’s bathrooms. And he had wanted to mention that in his speech. Well, the school required that he submit his text of the speech beforehand, and they did not approve that reference to the bathrooms. So he took it out. But during his speech, he stumbled over a few words. You could see on the video that Principal Wood was following along with a script. And when the young man stumbled over his words, it appears that the principal assumed he was going off script and stood up and makes this slashing gesture across his neck, and they cut the young man's microphone.
Think about this from the young man’s point of view. This is his high school graduation. His family, his friends are all there. And this principal, he embarrasses the young man. We think that fear of speech deserved recognition with the Jefferson Muzzle.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, when you get a Muzzle, it’s not just the glory of it. You actually receive a prize.
JOSH WHEELER: We send each of the recipients a Jefferson Muzzle t-shirt which has an image of our third president, with what is essentially a muzzle over his mouth. We’ve come up with these little taglines for each of these muzzles that hopefully inspire some laughter. For example, for the college that prevented the young man from passing out Constitutions on Constitution Day, their motto is, “Modesto Junior College, Taking the Constitution out of Constitution Day.” The high school newspaper that was censoring the student comments: “The Stinger News, None of the news that’s fit to print.” These sounded a lot funnier to us when we were doing it, but – [LAUGHING]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Cut this guy’s mic.
Cut his mic.
Josh Wheeler is the director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.