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RICHMOND, Va. – A Tennessee sheriff accused of deleting atheists' comments on a county Facebook page, a school chief who dismissed a teacher who stepped on the American flag in class, and the U.S. Senate for a bill targeting speech on college campuses are among the winners of the Jefferson Muzzles — satiric awards bestowed annually by a free-speech group.
The Charlottesville, Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression on Thursday announced its eight winners of its 25th edition of the Muzzles, a dubious honor given to those deemed egregious offenders of free expression.
The winners will receive T-shirts bearing an image of Jefferson, the nation's third president and an ardent free-speech advocate, with a black rectangle over his face. The awards are announced each year on or around the April 13 birthday of Jefferson.
Past winners have included White House administrations, the Defense Department and giant corporations. But the center's director, Josh Wheeler, said it's important to also honor less well-known offenses because the award "challenges the assumption held by many that, because of the First Amendment, attempts at censorship are few in the United States."
"In fact, such acts occur every day," his statement added. Each year, the group considers hundreds of nominations before whittling down to the winners.
Bradley County, Tennessee, Sheriff Eric Watson won after being accused of deleting comments by atheists and blocking atheist commentators from an official county Facebook post about the Easter holiday. The county admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to pay $41,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a national atheist organization.
"Sheriff Watson should have known better than to censor comments from the Facebook page because they reflected beliefs different from his own," the center said.
A sheriff's office spokesman didn't respond to a request for comment by The Associated Press. But Watson previously denied violating the plaintiffs' rights and said the settlement was a business decision made by the county.
School superintendent Frank Till in North Carolina's Cumberland County won for suspending and ultimately letting go a teacher who stepped on an American flag to illustrate First Amendment protections. The teacher was suspended for 10 days, transferred to a warehouse job and later didn't get his contract renewed.
"The irony of disciplining a teacher for teaching a lesson on free speech" deserves the Muzzle, the group said.
Till declined comment to AP through a district spokeswoman, but said previously that stepping on the U.S. flag was "inappropriate in our schools" and had violated policy.
As for the U.S. Senate, it won for unanimously passing a bill in December targeting speech on college campuses. The bill would change the definition of prohibited "anti-Semitism" to one that is so broad the center says it essentially would apply to any speech critical of Israel or its policies. An identical bill has been introduced in the House.
This year's other winners are:
— The Illinois state government, because the General Assembly passed, former Gov. Pat Quinn signed, and the state's attorney general defended what the center called an "unconstitutional restriction" on medical marijuana dispensaries donating to political candidates. Last month, a federal judge ruled the ban violated the businesses' First Amendment rights.
— The California Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown for passing a law banning online employment databases from listing the ages of actors and actresses — a move against age discrimination that the free speech group called "well-meaning" but found had disregarded First Amendment principles.
— The Collier County School District in Florida for a policy requiring students who elect not to stand for the national anthem to first obtain parental consent.
— The administration of Boca Raton Community High School in Florida for giving a student the choice of removing her anti-Hillary Clinton T-shirt that said "Hillary for Prison 2016" or serving an in-school suspension.
— The Los Angeles Community College District and the administration of Pierce College for not allowing a student to hand out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution outside of the college's tiny designated "free-speech zone."
The top nominees are typically sent letters informing them of their consideration. Wheeler said no one has responded this year.
"Nobody likes to think of themselves as a censor," Wheeler said. "But when push comes to shove, it's often very difficult to defend free speech" because it means you must defend people whose views you disagree with, he said.