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Bush leads Muzzle award winners

President Bush and the Justice Department are among the winners of the 2006 Jefferson Muzzle awards, given by a free-speech group to draw attention to what it considers the worst First Amendment violators in the past year.
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush and the Justice Department are among the winners of the 2006 Jefferson Muzzle awards, given by a free-speech group to those it considers the most egregious First Amendment violators in the past year.

Bush led the list, compiled by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, for authorizing the National Security Agency to tap the phones of U.S. citizens who make calls overseas. The wiretaps were conducted without authorization from a federal court. The White House defended the warrantless wiretapping program as necessary to fight terrorism.

The Justice Department earned a Muzzle for demanding that Google turn over thousands of Internet records, prompting concerns that more invasive requests could follow if the government prevails.

“If individuals are fearful that their communications will be intercepted by the government, such fears are likely to chill their speech,” the Jefferson center said.

Ban on the word ‘Wal-Mart’
Other winners of the 15th annual awards include the Department of Homeland Security for barring an air marshal from expressing concerns about public safety; the Yelm, Wash., City Council for banning the words “Wal-Mart” and “big-box stores” at public hearings; and students at the University of Connecticut who heckled conservative columnist Ann Coulter.

The center, based in Charlottesville, Va., awards the Muzzles each year to mark the April 13 birthday of Thomas Jefferson, the third president and a First Amendment advocate.

As in the past, this year’s winners reflect concern about “the overextension of government authority into areas that clearly affect our lives and chill and inhibit our ability to express views,” center director Robert M. O’Neil told The Associated Press.

Since The New York Times disclosed the surveillance program’s existence in December, it has become the target of harsh criticism, several lawsuits and a congressional investigation. John W. Dean, who was Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, remarked that the domestic spying exceeds the wrongdoing that toppled his former boss.

In the Google case, the Justice Department demanded search records to buttress its defense of a law aimed at protecting children from Internet pornography. Google resisted turning over any information because of user privacy and trade secret concerns. Other Internet providers — including AOL, Yahoo and MSN — complied with the government’s demand.

“Google appears to be the only one that drew a line in the sand,” O’Neil said. “We commend their insistence that aggregate data could end up identifying a particular subscriber.”

Security concerns
The Department of Homeland Security won its Muzzle for taking air marshal Frank Terreri off flight duty after he e-mailed colleagues expressing concerns about air-security risks. The federal policy curbing such activity was modified, and Terreri was allowed back on duty. But he sued, contending the department’s rules still restrict employees’ right to free speech.

In Yelm, Wash., the city council banned discussion of a plan by Wal-Mart to build a super center after many opponents sought to express their views. When that didn’t squelch opposition, the council voted in June to prohibit citizens from using the terms “Wal-Mart” or “big-box stores” at public meetings.

Hecklers at the University of Connecticut earned a Muzzle for drowning out Coulter’s speech in December. People have a right to express their disagreement with a speaker, the free-expression center said, but preventing fellow audience members from hearing the message is contrary to the First Amendment’s spirit.