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FREE SPEECH
Ashcroft meets the ghost of Thomas Jefferson
BY DAN KENNEDY

John Ashcroft, come on down. For repression above and beyond the call of duty, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has dishonored the attorney general with one of its annual Jefferson Muzzle Awards. The citation blasts Ashcroft for " keeping the activities of the Department of Justice (DOJ) hidden from public scrutiny while simultaneously expanding the DOJ’s authority to find out as much as possible about the private lives of the American people. "

The center has been singling out enemies of the First Amendment on Jefferson’s birthday, April 13, since 1992. (The Phoenix has been compiling its own New England–based Muzzle Awards, published each year during Fourth of July week, since 1998.) Ashcroft is one of just 10 winners this year, and center director Robert O’Neil says the attorney general is listed first for reasons of alphabetization rather than egregiousness. Still, Ashcroft’s accomplishments are impressive. According to the Jefferson Center, they include:

• Restricting public access to deportation hearings.

• Pushing for passage of the USA Patriot Act, that post-9/11 mishegas that expands government authority to snoop into the lives of private citizens.

• Curtailing the scope of Justice Department responses to requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act.

• Refusing to provide Congress with information it had requested regarding the department’s anti-terrorism investigations.

• Prohibiting two US citizens jailed on suspicion of aiding terrorists from speaking with their lawyers.

• Allowing $8000 to be spent on drapes to conceal two semi-nude statues in the Great Hall at the DOJ’s headquarters.

Ashcroft’s activities overlap with those of one other Jefferson Muzzle winner: the 107th Congress, an award recipient for approving a provision of the Patriot Act that allows federal investigators to seek search warrants aimed at finding out what books people have been buying or borrowing from the library, what Internet sites they have been visiting, and the like.

" The current attorney general’s activities and positions have been genuinely troubling. Any realist has to keep in mind the extraordinary nature of the times. But even so, it is our sense that there have been an unusual and worrisome series of transgressions, " says O’Neil, a former president of the University of Virginia and former clerk to the late Supreme Court justice William Brennan.

A call seeking comment from the Justice Department was not returned before the Phoenix’s deadline.

The other eight Jefferson Muzzles were awarded for more mundane but nevertheless troubling instances of anti–First Amendment activity, such as an Arkansas school board that banned Harry Potter books, the Tennessee Arts Commission for refusing to allow a nude painting in a competition, and the North Carolina House of Representatives for attempting to bar the University of North Carolina from requiring freshmen to read a book on Islam.

The Thomas Jefferson Center — an independent, nonprofit organization based in Charlottesville, Virginia, and affiliated with the University of Virginia — is governed by a board of trustees whose members include columnist James J. Kilpatrick, actress Sissy Spacek, and Newsweek’s Evan Thomas. According to O’Neil, the winners each year are culled from about 60 candidates.

Does it do any good? " Simply the attention that it gets at the time of the release probably has a slightly sobering effect on people, " says O’Neil.

For more information on the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and its annual Jefferson Muzzle Awards, visit its Web site at www.tjcenter.org.

Issue Date: April 25 - May 1, 2003
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