The 14th Annual Muzzle Awards

Our annual look at the dishonorable enemies of free speech and personal liberty in New England
By DAN KENNEDY  |  June 29, 2011

14th Annual Muzzle Awards 

To understand just how disappointing Barack Obama has been on civil liberties, you need only consider the case of David House, a founder of the Bradley Manning Support Network.


Last November, House, a Cambridge resident and former MIT researcher, arrived at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago following a vacation in Mexico. According to a lawsuit later filed on his behalf by the ACLU of Massachusetts, federal agents stopped him, seized his laptop computer, a flash drive, a digital camera, and his cell phone, and kept them for 49 days while they inspected the contents.

The agents also interrogated him about Manning, the Army private suspected of providing confidential US documents to WikiLeaks. In a classic example of guilt-by-association, the feds decided that House's activism on Manning's behalf was enough to raise suspicions. House, to his credit, has stayed strong, refusing recently to testify before a grand jury looking into WikiLeaks and calling the investigation "Nixonian."

By targeting House for, in effect, speaking out, the Obama administration demonstrated its utter contempt for the First Amendment. And though the House case has received considerable publicity, it was hardly an isolated example.

It is against this depressing backdrop that we present the 14th Annual Muzzle Awards, our Fourth of July round-up of outrages against free speech and personal liberties in New England. There is never a shortage of overzealous police officers, clueless politicians, and censorious school officials upon whom to bestow the uncoveted statuettes. What's truly distressing, though, is the situation at the national level.

No, the Obama administration can't compare with the Bush-Cheney White House and its embrace of torture, its illegal wiretapping program, and its secret practice of extraordinary rendition, under which terrorism suspects were sent to be questioned in countries where waterboarding is considered a warm-up for the hardcore stuff.

Still, for a president who came into office promising transparency, the Obama record is a bitter disappointment.

Consider that two Democratic senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, recently accused the administration of secretly abusing the notorious Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to snoop on what library books you've borrowed, what videos you've rented, your medical records, and other personal information.

Or that the Justice Department recently issued a subpoena ordering New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal his sources in his reporting on the Bush wiretapping scandal.

Or that the FBI will reportedly soon unveil new guidelines that will give it even greater powers to invade people's privacy than the agency claimed during the Bush years.

"I'm disgusted with this president," ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said a little more than a year ago.

Not that the Obama administration is alone in its contempt for the First Amendment. To the surprise of few, Joe Lieberman, the unctuous independent senator from Connecticut, suggested at one point that not only should WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange be charged with violating espionage laws, but so, too, should the Times, for the offense of publishing documents obtained by WikiLeaks.

"To me the New York Times has committed at least an act of, at best, bad citizenship, but whether they have committed a crime is a matter of discussion for the Justice Department," Lieberman told Fox News.

The Muzzle Awards were inspired by noted civil-liberties lawyer and Phoenix contributor Harvey Silverglate, who wrote the sidebar accompanying this article. They are named after similar awards given by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Freedom of Expression.

This year's edition, as always, was compiled by tracking the previous year's free-speech stories in New England, and is based on reporting by the Phoenix newspapers in Boston, Providence, and Portland, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and various news organizations and Web sites — including the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the Providence Journal, the Portland Press Herald, the Associated Press, the New York Times, Politico, the Atlantic, cnn.com, the Narragansett Times, the Barrington Times, the Salem News, the Swampscott Reporter, and wbur.org.

The envelopes, please.

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