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Annual Muzzle ‘awards’ go to alleged protest squelchers


    A Capitol Police officer guarded his post on Capitol Hill in Washington. The U.S. Capitol Police are among the seven winners of this year’s Jefferson Muzzles, tongue-in-cheek awards bestowed annually by a free-speech group.

RICHMOND, Va. >> A Texas principal accused of expelling a student who stayed seated during the Pledge of Allegiance and a Utah high school accused of censoring its student newspaper have been bestowed Jefferson Muzzles, tongue-in-cheek awards from a free-speech group.

The Charlottesville, Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression today announced the seven winners of its Muzzles, given annually to those the group deems the previous year’s most egregious offenders of free expression.

The group said in a statement that 2017 was a “perilous year” for free speech in America, citing college students’ attempts to silence unpopular speakers and what it called the Trump administration’s campaign to “vilify and delegitimize the press.”

But “when we look back on 2017, it will likely be remembered as a year in which both protest speech and anti-protest rhetoric simultaneously rose to levels not seen in decades,” said Clay Hansen, the center’s executive director.

The group said countless voices openly condemned unorthodox speakers last year, with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests of racial injustice during the national anthem being one high-profile example.

Several of Muzzle winners fall into that theme, the center said.

In Texas, Windfern High School principal Martha Strother faces a federal lawsuit by an African-American student, India Landry, and her mother, who say the high-schooler was expelled after refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance.

Landry told The Daily News she was motivated to sit through the pledge because of “police brutality” and “Donald Trump being president.”

Neither Strother nor the school district, which is also named as a plaintiff, returned messages from The Associated Press seeking comment. But an attorney for Strother said in a court filing that she denies many of the lawsuit’s allegations. The filing said Landry wasn’t expelled but rather was suspended for part of a day for violating the school’s cellphone policy.

In Utah, Herriman High School nabbed the center’s attention after students said it deleted a story the school newspaper published about the firing of a teacher who was under investigation by police.

According to the student journalists, the school took the website offline for a time and revoked their access to it.

A district spokeswoman provided a three-sentence statement about the incident that said the district supports “thought-provoking, informative and accurate reporting” and that it is the responsibility of students, advisers and administrators to make sure stories meet those expectations.

The spokeswoman didn’t respond to further questions.

This year’s other winners are:

— Kearney High School in Missouri, which removed the senior quotes of two gay students from the school’s yearbook. The district later apologized.

— Principal Waylon Bates of Parkway High School in Louisiana, who local media reported threatened to punish any student-athlete who didn’t stand for the national anthem.

— The United States Capitol Police, which was accused of barring reporters from recording protests during a debate on health care reform.

— The Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying, which the center says imposed a $500 fine on a resident who offered to present the findings of his informal study of local traffic light timing to the board. Oregon’s attorney general ruled that the panel violated the man’s free speech rights after he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, The Oregonian reported .

— The Starkville, Mississippi, Board of Aldermen, which the center says rejected a properly filed application for a community event that would have been the town’s first-ever Pride parade. The council later reversed its decision.

“At all levels of government, we observed actions designed to silence unpopular and unorthodox voices, often in direct contradiction of clearly established laws,” Hansen said.

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