RICHMOND, Va. – The "Jefferson Muzzles," those dubious awards shaming the nation's worst free-speech offenders, are taking aim at higher education this year — from tarring those at Yale who warned students against donning culturally insensitive Halloween costumes to feathering others for muzzling the press and more.
This is the 25th edition of the awards announced each year around the April 13 birth date of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president and ardent free speech advocate. The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression said the campus-themed Muzzles respond to an "epidemic of anti-speech activity" at colleges and universities in 2015 and continuing.
"Never in our 25 years of awarding the Jefferson Muzzles have we observed such an alarming concentration of anti-speech activity as we saw last year on college campuses across the country," according to the center's statement Wednesday that announced the "winners."
Typically, presidents, branches of government and public school administrators have won in past years for egregious efforts to censor. But higher education provided such fertile ground that the Jefferson Center said it divided the Muzzles into various categories: censorship of students, censorship by students, threats to academic freedom, and so on.
All told, 50 colleges and universities were cited — a feast to chew on but dispiriting as well, said Josh Wheeler, director of the center. Past Muzzle recipients received a T-shirt with Jefferson's likeness and a black rectangle over his mouth, but Wheeler said that wasn't practical this year because of the large number of recipients.
"When we have a large selection of nominations, I suppose it's a good thing for the program, but it's a sad commentary on the state of free speech in our country today," Wheeler told The Associated Press an interview. "Frankly we are as puzzled as anybody as to the reasons why there is this wave of anti-speech activity on college campuses."
At the University of Missouri, a now-fired assistant professor made the Muzzles cut for her call for "some muscle" to remove a student photographer from coverage of a public demonstration.
And at Yale University, the center said, it took to task those who issued an advisory to students about Halloween costumes. That said, professors and others came to the defense of instructors who questioned the student advisory on costumes.
The center said certain colleges and universities have embraced the concept of "trigger warnings" and other measures aimed at shielding students from any slight. "If there is any place where intellectual freedom and debate ought to be wide open and robust, it's the college and university campus," Wheeler noted.
The higher education offenders range from elite schools, such as Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, to community colleges and public and private institutions nationwide.
At Smith, students sought conditions from reporters seeking to cover demonstrations, with the aim of supporting their movement, the center said.
Among other "Muzzle" winners and the "offenses" the center cited:
— The University of Oklahoma, which severed ties with a fraternity and expelled two students shown in a video singing a racist chant. The center said President David Boren's actions — albeit widely popular — were unconstitutional.
— The University of California, which encouraged a system-wide campaign to combat "microaggressions" on its campuses.
— Students at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, for demanding protection from being exposed to sexist and derogatory comments on campus. When the administration declined, the students filed a federal Title IX complaint against the state university.
— Students at Amherst College in Massachusetts who asked the private school to issue a public condemnation of students who placed posters with the words "All Lives Matter" and "Free Speech" on campus. They also wanted the students to undergo extensive "training for racial and cultural competency" and disciplinary action.
The center was, however, able to recognize some schools that took a stand against censorship.
The University of Chicago, for instance, issued a policy statement that guaranteed "the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn," rejecting the role of a university to shield students from ideas and opinions. Princeton, Purdue and American adopted similar guarantees.
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