The 15th Annual Muzzle Awards

Our annual look at the dishonorable enemies of free speech and personal liberty in New England
By DAN KENNEDY  |  July 13, 2012

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Liberal dreams that Barack Obama would somehow usher in a progressive paradise were always misplaced. The drama of his inspirational biography aside, he campaigned in 2008 as a conventional Democrat who would govern as a centrist. Mission accomplished.

In one striking respect, though, Obama has fallen far short of his promise. After years of repression under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Obama pledged to open the windows and let the sun shine in.

"My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government," the president wrote in a memorandum posted on the White House Web site. "We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration."

The record does not support those words. And it is against a national backdrop of secrecy, fear, and loathing that we present the 15th Annual Muzzle Awards — our Fourth of July round-up (a bit late this year) of outrages against free speech in New England.

Take one underpublicized example of how Obama has fallen short. In March 2011, the Department of Justice proposed a change to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a tool used by journalists — as well as ordinary citizens — to obtain public records from government agencies. Under some circumstances, mainly involving national security, the government could respond to a FOIA request not just by declining to release the document, but by refusing to confirm whether it even existed.

The Justice Department proposed to take that one large step further: the government, it argued, should be able to lie by denying that the document existed.

As the Los Angeles Times observed in a harshly worded editorial, the policy "would mislead citizens who might file an appeal if they knew there was a possibility that the document they sought was in the possession of a government agency."

Fortunately, the Justice Department later backed down. (That is, if it's not lying.) But there remain plenty of reasons to be concerned about the Obama administration's penchant for secrecy.

Among other things, this White House has conducted an unprecedented campaign against leakers. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, the Espionage Act, adopted in 1917 during the hysteria of World War I, was used three times before Obama took office in 2009 — and six times during his presidency, all in an effort to stop internal critics of the White House from talking to reporters. That fact contradicts Republican claims that Obama hasn't pursued leakers zealously enough.

And the White House's use of drones against terrorists in the Middle East has put the president in the position of acting as judge, jury, and executioner. One of the rare times that a spotlight was shone on the program was in September of last year, when Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Al Qaeda leader, was assassinated in Yemen.

The action may have been justified. Evidence released by the White House strongly suggested that Awlaki's activities included direct involvement in a failed plot to bring down an airliner over Detroit in 2009. Still, ordering the killing of an American citizen without judicial oversight is serious business, and may well violate protections guaranteed by the Constitution.

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. Nominations were also solicited from American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapters in Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island. This article is based on reporting by various news organizations and Web sites — including the Boston Globe, the Cambridge Chronicle, the Providence Journal, the Portland Press Herald, the Bangor Daily News, the Enterprise of Brockton, the Associated Press, Down East, the Republican of Springfield, the New York Times, GoLocalProv, the North Providence Breeze, OpenCourt, wbur.org, the New England First Amendment Center at Northeastern University, and Talking Points Memo.

The envelopes, please.

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