PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - U.S. free-speech advocates on Tuesday gave their annual “muzzle” awards to violators including police who charged a woman for swearing at her overflowing toilet, and a motor vehicles department that deemed a “GETOSAMA” license plate offensive.
The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression said police in Scranton, Pennsylvania had no right to issue a disorderly conduct citation to Dawn Herb, who “let loose a tirade of foul language” directed at her toilet. A neighbor who was an off-duty police officer made a complaint.
The charge was dismissed by a judge who concluded that Herb’s words, though “offensive, vulgar and imprudent” to some, were nonetheless protected under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, the Jefferson center said.
The center also gave an award to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles after it demanded the return of the plates reading “GETOSAMA” that had been issued to a retired police officer who wanted to express his desire to capture Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.
The DMV argued they could be considered “lewd, lascivious, derogatory to a particular ethnic group, or patently offensive.” It later offered to let him keep them to settle a lawsuit claiming violation of his First Amendment rights.
The center, linked to the University of Virginia, reserved special scorn for the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a press conference at which agency staffers posing as reporters pitched soft questions to officials in an effort to show FEMA had done well in tackling California wildfires.
“FEMA’s incredible and unique attempt to substitute false or fabricated speech for free speech surely merits a 2008 Jefferson muzzle,” the center said.
And it gave a “Lifetime Muzzle” to the Federal Communications Commission for years of applying what it said were inconsistent or arbitrary standards of indecency on the airwaves.
The center noted that the FCC had ruled in 2001 that “fleeting expletives” would not be deemed indecent but then three years later judged that both the ‘f-word’ and the ‘s-word’ met its definitions of indecency.
Editing by Todd Eastham