Colorado wins dubious distinctions in 2009 Jefferson Muzzles awards

Each April since 1992, the Thomas Jefferson Center, located in Charlottesville, Virginia, has awarded the Jefferson Muzzles "as a means to draw national attention to abridgments of free speech and press and, at the same time, foster an appreciation for those tenets of the First Amendment" -- and in the just-released top-ten list for 2009, Colorado is represented not once, but twice. The number-one slot goes to the Democratic and Republican parties, for severely restricting the free-speech rights of protesters at last year's conventions in Denver and Minneapolis, respectively. And Aurora Frontier K-8 gets paddled for suspending fifth-grader Daxx Dalton for wearing a homemade t-shirt reading, "Obama -- a Terrorist's Best Friend."

Why did the Muzzle judges rate these entities so high? Read their rationale after the jump.

Re: The Democratic National Convention

For four days in late August 2008, Denver, Colorado played host to the Democratic National Convention. The main venue for the Convention and its delegates was Denver's massive Pepsi Center. Approximately 47,000 square feet of the Pepsi Center's parking lot was set aside for citizens who wished to direct a message of protest to the delegates. Few delegates heard or saw the protestors, however, as the free speech zone was located nearly 700 feet from the delegates' entrance to the Pepsi Center. The zone was closed on three sides by two walls made of concrete barriers topped with chain link fence. Eight feet separated the two walls creating a security barrier patrolled by law enforcement officers. The free speech zone could be accessed by the open side but only by passing through a number of security check points.

In other parts of the city there were other protests, several of which resulted in clashes with the police. Reports vary as to whether protestors or the police bear responsibility for instigating the clashes but evidence that the police overreacted can be found in the fact that in the cases slated for trial, more than half have been acquitted or had the charges dropped. One notable arrest was that of ABC News producer Asa Eslocker who pushed off a public sidewalk into traffic by a sheriff's deputy and then charged with interference, trespass and failure to obey a lawful order. All charges were subsequently dropped.

Subsequent to the convention, the Denver Police Protective Association, a union representing most of Denver's 1,400 police, made available to its members and others a "commemorative" DNC T-shirt featuring a baseball-bat wielding policeman and the slogan "WE GET UP EARLY to BEAT the Crowds 2008 DNC."

Re: Aurora Frontier K-8

Especially in the post-Columbine era, public school administrators are deeply (and quite properly) troubled by potential threats. In their concern for the safety of their students and teachers, they may limit certain activities, including even some forms of expression that pose serious risks to the school community. But the wearing of unwelcome or controversial messages on T-shirts and other clothing seldom warrant discipline, and surely seem not to do so in the case of two public schools that share this Jefferson Muzzle...

... An elementary school student in the adjacent state of Colorado got into trouble for sporting a very different but equally unwelcome message. Fifth grader Daxx Dalton came to Aurora Frontier K-8 in Aurora one day in early September 2008, wearing a shirt with the hand-lettered message "Obama - a Terrorist's Best Friend." His sister appeared at school that day with a shirt that featured a red line through the word "Obama" followed by a pro-McCain message. (All students had been asked on that day to wear red, white and blue to school as evidence of their patriotism.) Daxx was suspended for three days when he refused to turn the shirt inside out, cover it, or exchange it for a less volatile garment. School officials justified the suspension on the basis of their perception that the "Terrorist's Best Friend" shirt had caused "shouting and yelling;" other students had apparently apprised Frontier teachers of concerns about Daxx's message.

The Supreme Court has consistently affirmed that public school students do not "shed their rights at the schoolhouse gate" and that the First Amendment limits the scope of discipline that may be imposed for expressive activity. Greater deference is, for example, given to K-12 administrators in regard to "time, place and manner" regulations, and to a teacher's control of the classroom. Four decades ago, however, the Justices recognized that the peaceful display of controversial messages or insignia - at that time it was black armbands worn to school to protest the Vietnam War - enjoyed First Amendment protection. A principal's claim of "disruption" demanded clear proof of actual disruption, and not simply contention or controversy of the type that seems to have characterized events both at Millard and Frontier. The failure to recognize that critical distinction in imposing discipline on students at both schools merits a Jefferson Muzzle.

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