Muzzle It

The Phoenix's 15th Annual Muzzle Awards, doled out to the "dishonorable enemies of free speech and personal liberty in New England" around every July 4, is on the Interzone now and will hit newsstands tomorrow morning.

The list includes a couple of Rhode Islanders. Governor Chafee gets a trophy for signing a bill, designed to crack down on child porn, that gives law enforcement the power to wrangle info about customers of online services without a warrant. The opportunity for abuse, here, is quite clear. It was only last year that the Narragansett and Barrington cops got Muzzles after seeking to investigate online critics of local pols.

Kristen Catanzaro, president of the North Providence town council, also gets the nod for pushing a policy that required members of the public commenting at council meetings to take the oath - the truth, the whole truth, ya-da-ya-da-ya-da. A little chilling, don't you think? Fortunately, the policy was suspended before anyone had to abide.

But if Chafee and Catanzaro took the prize, there were plenty of dishonorable mentions. How about the Cranston school board defending a plainly unconstitutional prayer banner at Cranston High School West? Or the Warwick City Councilman who threatened to sue a critic who used his likeness in a newspaper advertisement, citing a state law designed to prohibit use of unauthorized likenesses in connection with sales pitches ("Linc Chafee says, buy your holiday tree here.")? Or how about the state school board proposing rules forbidding a member of the public from commenting on an issue simply because it had been commented on at another meeting? The rules also called for a crackdown on anyone "indulging in personal attacks." Just a little overbroad, no?

There were some reasonably happy endings, here. The state school board dropped the "personal attacks" language. And the Warwick City Councilman never filed his suit. Indeed, the General Assembly even passed a law, at the end of the recently completed legislative session, clarifying that the state statute on unauthrized likenesses in advertising cannot curtail political speech.

But it's the effort that counts! Yes, we could have doled out many a Rhode Island Muzzle this year. And, wethinks, there will be plenty more to dish out next July 4. God Bless America!


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