Rep. Grayson Wins 'Muzzle' Award For Free Speech Offenses

Oct. 1, 2009: Rep. Alan Grayson listens to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testify on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Oct. 1, 2009: Rep. Alan Grayson listens to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testify on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP)

Outspoken Florida Rep. Alan Grayson topped the "Muzzle" awards on Tuesday, earning the dubious distinction for asking Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate a Web site that parodied his campaign site. 

The annual award list, created by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, is presented on April 13, Jefferson's birthday, to remind people of the third president's unavowed commitment to free speech. 

The center says the awards are handed out for "some of the more egregious or ridiculous affronts to the First Amendment right of free speech."

Topping the meter was Grayson's effort to seek a monetary fine and five-year prison sentence against a group of Orlando-area Republican activists led by Angie Langley, who launched the Web site "mycongressmanisnuts.com," a parody of Grayson's official  Web site "congressmanwithguts.com. 

Grayson wrote a complaint to Holder in December alleging that the Web site violated federal law because Langley is not actually a constituent of his and the site targets him solely, even though it claims to oppose or endorse several candidates.

"The merits of Rep. Grayson’s claims are weak at best," the group wrote. "Alleged violations of Federal Election law that, even if true, represent minor transgressions."

Grayson is no stranger to free speech, having used his own First Amendment right to call an adviser to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke a "whore." He later apologized for that.

He also earned scorn from the Anti-Defamation League for calling the U.S. health care system a "holocaust in America" and for saying that the Republicans' health care plan was to have patients "die quickly."

But Grayson's outspokenness has earned him fans and money. The freshman congressman claims he collected $803,000 in first quarter donations this year. 

Grayson was just one of 10 "official" winners of the Muzzle this year. And, unlike previous years, according to Jefferson Center Director Bob O'Neil, all 10 winners were government and school officials. There were no corporations or other private entities in the mix this year.

The Alabama Alcohol Beverage Control Board won its Muzzle for banning the sale and distribution of a California wine because it displays "a person posed in an immoral or sensuous manner." The questionable image is a replica of an 1895 French poster featuring a nymph flying next to a winged bicycle.

"If you magnify it by three- or four-fold, even then you could barely detect a nipple," O'Neil said.

Another Muzzle went to administrators at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif., for the school's policy of limiting protests to a "free-speech patio." 

Faculty members who tried to move to a nearby courtyard when protesting budget cuts were banned from campus. After public outcry, officials lifted the ban, but the free-speech patio remains, O'Neil said.

Southwestern spokesman Chris Bender said Tuesday that it was an issue of public safety, and that "the Jefferson Center has confused protecting free speech with protecting people from getting hurt."

A Muzzle went to the Las Vegas Police Department for trying to keep musicians from performing on the main strip, despite the fact that streets, sidewalks and parks are considered public forums.

"You'd think that on the Las Vegas strip, of all places, there'd be lots of levity," but among those police cited last year under local ordinances were an Elvis impersonator and a woman who sang and played guitar. A federal lawsuit was filed challenging the police's actions. A settlement appears to be in the works, O'Neil said.

Oklahoma's tax commission won a Muzzle for denying an "IM GAY" personalized license plate, citing a rule barring plates that might be "offensive to the general public." 

Keith Kimmel challenged the decision in court, but O'Neil said the lawsuit won't proceed because Kimmel died in March. O'Neil noted the government improperly curbs free speech when it creates a forum for public expression, then allows only some messages to be expressed.

The Virginia Department of Corrections won a Muzzle for denying inmate Kyle Mabe a compact disc containing audio of a Christian sermon, which the center said violated his constitutional rights of free speech and religious freedom. The corrections department has since revised its policy to allow inmates to order religious CDs, effective June 1.

Other winners include: The Puerto Rico Department of Education for banning five books at high schools; the Texas Legislature for passing legislation requiring the state film commission to deny tax incentives for films shot in the state that portray Texas negatively; Chicago Alderman James Balcer for unilaterally ordering that an artist's mural be painted over, even though the artist properly sought permission from the private building's owner.

Muzzles also went to West Fargo School Board in North Dakota and Orange County, Calif., High School Principal S.K. Johnson. The faculty adviser of the West Fargo High School student newspaper was removed from that position because administrators thought he allowed too much negative content. Johnson locked all 300 copies of a student-produced magazine in a locker because it featured tattooed students and a "gang-looking" cover that the principal didn't think represented a positive image of the school.

"What strikes us is that practicing censorship, as they've done, sends the wrong message to student journalists," O'Neil said.

Click here for the Muzzle Awards list.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.