Oil giant BP and the Obama administration were among the winners of the Jefferson Muzzle awards, given Wednesday by a free-speech group to those it considered the worst First Amendment violators in 2010.
BP and the government appeared on the list, compiled by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, for their roles in restricting news media access to the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Other recipients included the Transportation Security Administration, which arrested a passenger who stripped to his shorts to protest security measures; a Mississippi judge who jailed a lawyer or refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the Virginia prisons agency for banning a "Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook."
BP employees and various authorities, including the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard, repeatedly barred journalists from public beaches or waters as oil gushed out of a underwater well after an oil rig explosion a year ago, the center said.
"Whether these incidents were collectively intended, or the incidental by-products of an ambiguous policy that allowed BP and government agents too much latitude, the Obama administration and BP share responsibility for having prevented the media from fully documenting the spill," the Charlottesville-based center said.
In one example, a scheduled Coast Guard trip organized by Sen. Bill Nelson to an oil slick off Pensacola, Fla., was called off when the Department of Homeland Security told him network crews weren't allowed, said the center's director, Robert O'Neil.
The TSA charged a 21-year-old passenger at Richmond International Airport with disorderly conduct after he stripped in December to reveal the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable search and seizures written on his chest. The TSA detained Aaron Tobey, but the charge was later dropped.
Mississippi State Court Judge Talmadge Littlejohn ordered an attorney in contempt for refusing to recite the pledge in his courtroom. Danny Lampley spent five hours in jail, even though the First Amendment prohibits the government from forcing citizens to say the pledge.
Facing a public reprimand by the state Commission on Judicial Performance, Littlejohn admitted that he violated Lampley's rights, and the courtroom pledge is now voluntary.
The Virginia Department of Corrections, a Muzzle winner for the second straight year, won for denying inmates access to "Jailhouse Lawyer's Handbook: How to Bring a Federal Lawsuit to Challenge violations of Your Rights in Prison." Two legal groups sued over the ban, claiming it violated prisoners' free-speech and due-process rights. The lawsuit was settled in March, and state corrections officials agreed to allow inmates to obtain the book.
The prisons agency won in 2009 for denying inmate Kyle Mabe a compact disc containing audio of a Christian sermon. The corrections department revised its policy and allows inmates to order religious CDs.
Hamilton College was found Muzzle-worthy for making male first-year students, but not women, attend a campus presentation on rapes. While private colleges aren't bound by the First Amendment, the New York school's requirement was a "cognitive and emotional intervention" that smacked of forced indoctrination, O'Neil said.
Gail Sweet, director of the Burlington County, N.J., library system, was cited for sidestepping the library's official policy for challenging books when she removed an anthology of essays by homosexual, bisexual and transgender teenagers after a complaint.
The Jefferson Center also awarded Muzzles to Smithsonian Institution Secretary Wayne Clough for bowing to pressure from a Catholic group that called for the removal of an artist's inclusion of a video clip of a crucifix with ants crawling on it; and the administration of Virginia's Albemarle High School for authorizing the destruction of school newspapers because the edition contained a student editorial that questioned why student-athletes need to take gym class.
The awards coincide with Jefferson's birthday. The nation's third president was a free-speech advocate.
Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression: www.tjcenter.org