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The Seventh Annual Muzzle Awards
Ten who undermined free speech and personal liberties
BY DAN KENNEDY


IN 1998, THE PHOENIX began what has become an annual Fourth of July tradition: the Muzzle Awards, a dubious honor we bestow upon 10 people, institutions, or organizations in Greater Boston and New England for suppressing freedom of speech and personal liberties during the previous year.

Our winners this year range from a pair of governors and that glowering media star of the Bush administration, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to two high-school principals who still believe the old adage that children — even teenagers on the verge of adulthood — should be seen and not heard.

Inspired by noted civil-liberties lawyer (and Phoenix contributor) Harvey A. Silverglate and named after similar awards given by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Freedom of Expression, the Muzzles — we hope — serve both to embarrass those who fail to take our liberties seriously and to remind the rest of us that we should never grow complacent about our freedom.

In both 2002 and 2003, the Phoenix’s Muzzles reflected tensions arising within the post-9/11 world: an Iraqi-born professor who was questioned by the FBI and campus police; a 60-year-old man who was charged with trespassing at a mall after refusing to remove his anti-war T-shirt; a governor who barred the press and the public from a homeland-security conference.

By contrast, this year’s awards may be emblematic of what has been a year of transition. The horror of what happened nearly three years ago has diminished. And we cannot know whether the Democratic National Convention will be met with a wave of repression until it actually happens in late July.

Not that there aren’t some warning signs on the horizon. One of our Muzzle winners for this year is the Boston Police Department, for its over-the-top reaction to a Boston College student who posed Abu Ghraib–style, in a black hood with wires in his hands, outside a military-recruiting station. Police arrested the man, Joe Previtera, and charged him with making a bomb threat. Fortunately, the office of Suffolk district attorney Dan Conley (himself a Muzzle winner, ironically) quickly dropped the charges against Previtera. But was this a one-time mistake? Or was it an indication that when the Democrats are in town, the police intend to adopt a policy of arrest first and ask questions later?

In May, the ACLU of Massachusetts released a report on the state of civil liberties in the post-9/11 era (see "Unpatriotic," Editorial, May 14). The report included such horror stories as that of Essam Mohammed Almohandis, a 33-year-old biomedical engineer from Saudi Arabia who was harassed, abused, and stripped almost naked at the Plymouth County jail after he was caught with "incendiary devices" at Logan Airport. He was released after it turned out that the devices were noisemakers for a party. The ACLU spoke out against "measures that violate privacy and chill dissent, by ethnic and religious profiling, and by a zero tolerance enforcement of immigration laws."

This year’s round-up was compiled by closely tracking freedom-of-expression stories in New England since last July 4. It is based mainly on stories reported by various New England news organizations, including the Phoenix.

As the Seventh Annual Muzzle Awards go to press, there are already some early contenders for next year’s edition. Despite months of haggling, it remains unclear whether protesters at the Democratic convention will have the access they need — to which they are constitutionally entitled — to get their message out. A recently announced policy of randomly checking bags on the MBTA — already denounced by the ACLU as unconstitutional — could turn into a civil-liberties fiasco. And nationally, Attorney General John Ashcroft continues to pose a clear and present danger to all of us, and to our rights as a free people.

The envelopes, please.

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Issue Date: July 2 - 8, 2004
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