Carcieri wins second Muzzle Award

Hot on the heels of the Bush administration's recent mockery of the First Amendment, the president's host, Governor Carcieri, has claimed his second Muzzle Award. The prize, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, recognizes those who would stifle free speech.

As Dan Kennedy writes in this week's Phoenix:

Earlier this year, a remarkable bill was filed in the Rhode Island General Assembly. Supported by the state-police superintendent, Colonel Brendan Doherty, it would allow the state attorney general, as well as state and local police, to examine anyone’s private Internet, phone, bank, and credit-card records without first seeking a court warrant.

It’s a piece of legislation that Rhode Island officials are treating like a bad check. Governor Donald Carcieri’s spokesman says Carcieri won’t support it unless he can be assured that privacy rights would be sufficiently protected. The bill’s sponsor, State Representative Richard Singleton, a Cumberland Republican, says he’s not too thrilled with the legislation, but agreed to file it on behalf of — yes — Carcieri.

A Providence Journal editorial got it exactly right in observing that “ultimately, the governor is responsible for this bad legislation” — especially given its close resemblance to a proposal he supported in 2006.

“It amounts to a wholesale invasion of Rhode Islanders’ privacy,” says Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU. It’s certainly not as though playing by the rules leads to unnecessary delays. According to one estimate, it takes all of 20 or 30 minutes to obtain a court warrant.

Carcieri is a two-time offender. In 2004, he won a Muzzle Award for filing a homeland-security bill that would have brought back World War I–style laws by making it illegal to advocate anarchy, to call for the overthrow of the government, or to display any alternative to the American flag with the intention of making a protest or other symbolic statement. Carcieri backed off, but not before blaming his staff and claiming he had not read the legislation — just as he tried to pass off the responsibility for his latest repressive measure on Doherty, his own appointee.

Fortunately, the House Judiciary Committee recommended in March that the Carcieri/Doherty/Singleton bill be referred for further study. That is invariably a euphemism for killing a measure. And it’s hard to think of a bill that is more deserving of being killed than this misbegotten abridgement of the right to go about one’s business in private.

The president of Rhode Island College also gets Kennedy's nod for a Muzzle:

What was Rhode Island College president John Nazarian thinking?

In December 2005, the Women’s Studies Organization at the college posted several signs in support of reproductive freedom — including, most notably, KEEP YOUR ROSARIES OFF OUR OVARIES. A priest reportedly noticed the signs while traveling to Nazarian’s home to celebrate mass, and mentioned them during the service. Nazarian responded by ordering that the signs be taken down, claiming that the women had not followed the proper approval process.

This past December, the Rhode Island ACLU filed suit in federal court, claiming the women’s First Amendment rights had been abridged. Now, of course, it’s true that people can’t go around putting up signs anywhere they please. But according to the ACLU, the place where the Women’s Studies Organization had posted its signs — the entrance to the campus — has been the scene of numerous temporary signs, including some put up by the college itself.

Rhode Island College is a public, taxpayer-funded institution, which makes Nazarian’s act of censorship that much worse. “A public university can’t abridge anyone’s free-speech rights, including [those of] students,” says Jennifer Azevedo, a volunteer lawyer with the ACLU.

The mystery is why Nazarian believed he needed to do anything. A demonstration of pro-choice sentiment at a college in the liberal Northeast is hardly the stuff of controversy. In fact, it’s difficult to believe that even the priest who mentioned it to Nazarian was offended, no matter how strongly he may have disagreed with the message. If Nazarian had just waited a few days, the signs would have been gone and forgotten.

Instead, he reacted with a blatant act of censorship — and, according to the ACLU, compounded it by attempting to assert at one point that the students had no First Amendment claims against him because he’s not a government employee.

“College is a place for the free expression of ideas,” says Nichole Aguiar, president of the Women’s Studies Organization. “[Rhode Island College] has denied our organization those rights and we have decided to take action to ensure that RIC is a better place for all students.”

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