Northeastern professor has been targeting New England’s enemies of free speech for 25 years

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Protesters confront a row of police officers at the conclusion of a peaceful movement where they protested the death of George Floyd and other black lives lost to police racism across the US at Franklin Park in Boston, Massachusetts on June 2, 2020. – Anti-racism protests have put several US cities under curfew to suppress rioting, following the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

From police aggressively dispersing peaceful Indigenous protesters in Massachusetts in 1997 to Fox News host Tucker Carlson targeting freelance journalists in Maine in 2020, First Amendment outrages in New England have not been hard to come by.

That’s according to Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy, who has been tracking freedom of speech abuses around the region with his “New England Muzzle Awards” since the late 1990s. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the annual Fourth of July roundup, which calls attention to 10 of the worst First Amendment attacks from the previous year.

The goal has remained the same throughout the decades, Kennedy says: to call out the most egregious instances of censorship in New England.

Dan Kennedy, associate professor of journalism, calls out the most egregious instances of censorship in New England. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“By calling attention to these attacks on freedom of expression, it raises public awareness and prevents things like this from happening in the future,” Kennedy explains. “Unfortunately, there’s never a shortage of candidates.”

The Muzzle Awards were originally published in The Boston Phoenix, the city’s award-winning alternative weekly, until the newspaper folded in 2013. The roundup then moved to GBH News, where it has been published ever since.

The idea for the awards was inspired by the “Jefferson Muzzles,” another annual roundup that looked at the most appalling First Amendment violations, only on a much larger scale. The awards were given out nationally by the nonpartisan Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

In 1998, Harvey Silverglate, a renowned civil liberties attorney, journalist and author, got wind of the Jefferson Muzzles. At the time, he worked as a freelancer at the Phoenix with Kennedy, the paper’s media columnist. Silverglate suggested to Kennedy that he do a version of the roundup, but localize it to New England.

“Dan is a teacher. He is a writer. He is a journalist. He wears many hats,” Silverglate says. “He’s very versatile, and I think it’s very admirable that he conveys to students the importance of free speech and expression. He’s fighting the good fight.”

At the time that Kennedy kicked off the New England Muzzle Awards, Silverglate began his own roundup, the “Campus Muzzle Awards,” where he similarly ranks the worst First Amendment outrages, only at colleges and universities in the region.

“I have been a free speech absolutist from the beginning of my career,” Silverglate says, “and campuses, particularly public colleges and universities, which are constitutionally bound to protect the freedom of speech of students and faculty, have been on the forefront of abuses of freedom of speech.”

Kennedy and Silverglate agree that although communication has evolved since the ‘90s, the attacks on the First Amendment that they have tracked have remained startlingly consistent over the years.

“All I see is a continuation of the ancient human notion to want to say what one wants, but to not let the one who disagrees with you speak,” Silverglate says. “It’s certainly a human practice that goes back eons.”

For instance, Kennedy points out, almost every year, there are cases of communities trying to limit the kinds of signs that residents put in their yards. This year’s Muzzle Awards, published Wednesday, include one for the city of Newton, Massachusetts, where officials demanded that an activist take down signs supporting President Joe Biden.

Similarly, last year, a Muzzle Award was given to officials in Plymouth, Massachusetts, who threatened a supporter of former President Donald Trump with fines if he did not remove a sign that said “Biden Is Not My President.”

Other Muzzle Awards this year include one for the head of Concord Academy, an elite private school in Massachusetts, who uninvited Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who covers racial injustice, after asking her to speak during Black History Month.

Another was given to Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who criticized Amazon for how the retailer promotes controversial books that spread misinformation about COVID-19.

“I understand where she’s coming from. As a civilian, I agree with her,” Kennedy says, “but as a public official with regulating power, to question what books Amazon sells and promotes strikes me as very chilling.”

In light of the Muzzle Awards’ 25th anniversary, Kennedy looks at three of some of the most notable freedom of speech outrages he has tracked over the years.

1. ‘Veggie libel’ legislation, 1998 

From the debut edition of the Muzzle Awards, this case is “notable for its absurdity,” according to Kennedy. A Republican state legislator from Gloucester, Massachusetts, named Bruce Tarr, filed a bill permitting lawsuits against anyone providing “false information about the safety of the food supply.” The bill, similar to proposals in other states, was an attempt to silence critics of industrial food practices. Fortunately, Kennedy notes, the bill died in committee.

2. Spying on peace activists, 2006.

The George W. Bush era was defined by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as well as their aftermath: a period of fear and repression, according to Kennedy. In Maine, antiwar activists were worried the Pentagon was keeping them under surveillance, and in Rhode Island, an activist group learned it had been listed in a government database as a “threat” following a protest outside National Guard headquarters in Providence. The spying was conducted as part of a program begun in 2003 by Paul Wolfowitz, who was a top official in the Department of Defense at the time and an architect of the invasion of Iraq.

3. Police brutality against BLM protesters, 2021.

Following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, it appeared at first that New England had been spared from the worst excesses of police misconduct, Kennedy explains. However, police body camera videos were released later that showed officers in both Boston and Worcester, Massachusetts, appearing to crack down on peaceful demonstrators with excessive force. In Boston, a sergeant was seen bragging about driving his vehicle into a crowd, and in Worcester, protesters were thrown to the ground and arrested, among them a freelance photojournalist.

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